Reward seat availability up for 3rd straight year

Value-oriented carriers continue to dominate

The results of the seventh annual survey of which airlines are the best when it comes to using your frequent flier miles show value-oriented carriers continue to lead the pack, but also showed improvements among larger carriers and especially among those based outside the U.S.

airberlin Boeing 737
Photo courtesy airberlin
As in last year's survey, Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) and airberlin tied for first place for their passengers' ability to book a "saver" seat using accrued frequent flier miles. According to the 2016 Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey released May 11, both airlines offered seats on 100 percent of their flights for the test period queried.

Virgin Australia, along with airberlin and Southwest, has placed within the top six in every edition of the reward survey since the first such survey in 2010. This year, Virgin Australia took third place with 94.3 percent availability, a drop of 2.1 percent from 2015.

JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) and Lufthansa/SWISS/Austrian tied for fourth with 92.9 percent availability, both up 5.7 points from last year's survey.

The survey also tracks year-over-year changes. Among the three major U.S. legacy carriers, only Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) showed an improvement. Its SkyMiles award seat availability in 2016 was at 68.6 percent, up 10.7 points from last year. While dropping 2.9 points from 2015, United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) showed 72.1 percent availability through its MileagePlus program. American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) dropped 10.7 points to 56.4 percent availability for its AAdvantage program. Seattle-based Alaska Air Group (NYSE:ALK), which comprises Alaska Airlines and Horizon Airlines, showed a 7.1 point drop but availability of 72.9 percent for its Mileage Plan members.

Several international carriers showed double-digit increases in award seat availability, according to the report. Turkish increased 28.6 percent to 92.1 percent availability for its Miles & Smiles program while Air China increased 27.1 percent to 77.9 percent for its PhoenixMiles members. Qantas Group increased 16.4 percent to 89.3 percent for its Frequent Flyer members while Emirates increased 12.9 percent to 78.6 percent for its Skywards members.

“This survey reflects the fact that airlines can’t afford to take their customers for granted," Daniel Farrar, CEO of Switchfly, said in a statement accompanying the survey results, adding that consumers "[K]now when their loyalty programs are offering them a real value and when they are not delivering; and they don’t have time for loyalty programs that aren’t delivering, especially in such a competitive space."

The seventh annual survey shows that reward seat availability overall is up for the third year in a row. The 2016 survey showed that 76.6 percent the queries yielded reward seats, which is higher than \last year’s result of 74 percent and the 2014 result of 72.4 percent. Further, the latest survey continues to confirm that seasonality truly matters. Reward seat availability is lowest during the summer months of June, July and August with the biggest dip in July.

Finally, long-haul availability has improved significantly over time with eight airlines having availability scores above 70 percent for 2016 compared to only three airlines when the first survey was conducted in 2010.

The seventh annual survey, conducted in March by the IdeaWorksCompany, is based on 7,140 booking and fare queries made at the websites of 25 frequent flier programs during March 2016. Travel dates spanned June through October 2016, with top routes for each carrier checked to assess “saver style” reward seat availability. The company then recorded whether reward seats were available for both outbound and return travel on the dates specified.

The 25 carriers in the survey remained the same as in 2015 except that Korean Air replaced Singapore Airlines as a larger carrier.

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