Survey shows how easy it is(n't) to use your airline miles

You’ve saved and saved, and finally you’re ready to take that big vacation using your accrued frequent flier miles. But what are the chances you’ll actually be able to use those miles to get where you want to go?

The recently released results of an annual survey says chances can be pretty good ... IF you’ve chosen the right airline.

The forth annual survey, conducted in March by IdeaWorksCompany, tried to book seats using saver-style awards for parties of two travelers on the top routes of 25 carriers. It looked at 280 specific dates between June and October, and recorded whether reward seats were available for both outbound and return travel on the dates specified.

The results

The survey showed that value-based carrier Southwest ranked No. 1 among U.S.-based carriers with reward seats available on 100 percent of the flights queried.

AirTran (a part of Southwest) was the No. 2 U.S. carrier with 95 percent availability, up from the 87.1 percent availability it had last year. As it did in 2012, jetBlue held the No. 3 slot among domestic airlines, but improved its availability to 88.6 percent from 86.4 percent last year. United Airlines, tied for second in 2012, dropped to the No. 4 spot with 80 availability, compared to 87.1 percent last year. Regional carrier Alaska Airlines was the No. 5-rated U.S. airline, with 56.4 percent availability compared to 59.3 percent last year. American Airlines was next, at 48.6 percent, which was up from at 45.7 percent the year before, while Delta and US Airways tied for seventh place among U.S. airlines, at 36.4 percent each. That marked a 9.3 percent gain at Delta and a 2.8 percent gain for US Airways.

The annual survey shows overall availability slightly worse than last year, with only eight airlines scoring above 80 percent for 2013 compared to nine airlines above 80 percent in 2012, and only five above 80 percent in 2010, the first year of the survey.

If you live outside the U.S. and belong to a frequent flier program, the survey’s results may be even more encouraging. Of the 13 carriers with the 10 highest percentages, only four were U.S.-based.

Air Berlin and Brazil’s GOL Airlines tied with Southwest for No. 1 at 100 percent availability, while Virgin Australia was a close second at 98.6 percent. Air Asia was ranked No.4 overall at 90 percent followed by Singapore Airlines at No.5 and 88.6 percent, Qantas Group at No. 6 and 86.4 percent, Lufthansa/SWISS/Austrian at No. 7 and 82.1 percent, Air China at No. 9 and 79.3 percent, and Air France/LMM rounding out the top 10 at 77.9 percent.

The survey also looked at seat availability on short notice. “The results confirm what many travelers already suspect is true; booking later sometimes provides better results,” the company said in the news release announcing the results.

The company tested six US-based carriers using a much shorter 5- to 15-day booking window and found that Southwest offered seats on 85 percent of its flights. United Airlines offered seats on 77.5 percent of its flights, down from 87.5 percent in 2012. Delta’s short-term availability rose to 60 percent from 25 percent last year, while American’s availability dropped to 57.5 percent from 65 percent. US Airways also had reward seats on 57.5 percent of its flights, up from 42.5 percent last year, while Alaska and jetBlue were at 37.5 percent each.

Last year’s short notice survey did not include Southwest, Alaska or jetBlue.

Part of the reason for the improvement centers on competition from other sectors.

“Competition in the U.S. for credit cardholders, a lucrative source of ancillary revenue, keeps airlines focused on reward availability. Bank travel reward cards, such as Capital One and Chase Sapphire Preferred, rely on a ‘travel anytime on any airline’ message that supports a perception that reward seats are in scant supply,” IdeaWorks said.

While the results of the current survey are encouraging, the company warned against predicting a continued rosy future.

“With the U.S. airline industry experiencing healthy financial recovery and consolidation, time will tell if airlines continue their present level of generosity,” the company said.

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