Using frequent flyer miles continues to get easier. Mostly.

A just-released survey shows that scoring a free airline seat using your accrued frequent flyer miles is getting easier on most, but not all, U.S. airlines.

The 9th annual CarTrawler Reward Seat Availability Survey, sponsored by CarTrawler and conducted by The IdeaWorksCompany, shows that Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) had the best award seat availability, with 100 percent of its flights having seats available for those who wanted to redeem Rapid Rewards points.

Emirates A380 Business-Class seat

The survey is based upon 7,420 booking and fare queries made by the IdeaWorksCompany at the websites of 25 frequent flyer programs to assess “saver style” reward seat availability. The results show the percentage of queries that produced one or more available flights for a round-trip pair of travel dates with a minimum of two seats available for each outbound and inbound query.

Southwest has topped the survey almost every year since the survey began in 2010. missing 100 percent and the top spot in 2011 by a single query.

jetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU), which had reward seats available on 94.3 percent of its flights last year, maintained that percentage this year but was bested by both Air Canada (96.4 percent) and Turkish Airlines (95 percent), pushing jetBlue to the No. 4 position this year.

Two of the Big Three U.S. carriers shows dramatic improvement from their 2017 scores. American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) had reward seats available on 82.1 percent of its flights, a 27.8 point improvement from last year and securing it the No. 9 spot of the world's airlines. United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) also did better, with seats on 75.7 percent of its flights. An increase of 10.7 points from 2017, United ranked the No. 12 airline. Rounding out the Big Three, Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) lost 2.2 points, slipping to 72.1 percent availability and No. 13 overall.

The biggest losers of U.S. carriers were the airlines of Seattle-headquartered Alaska Group (NYSE:ALK). Making the list at No. 14, seats were only available on 69.3 percent of flights on Alaska, Virgin America, and Horizon. Last year, the combined carriers had seats available on 81.4 percent of their flights.

Overall reward availability for the 25 airlines surveyed increased to 73.6 percent for 2018, which is a marginal increase above last year’s level of 72.4 percent. Overall, 11 airlines improved their reward availability for 2018, while seven airlines had declines.

The survey also evaluated award seat availability for long-haul flights.

Turkish Airways was No. 1 with reward seats available on 98.6 percent of its long-haul flights, up a dramatic 31.4 point improvement from the 2017 survey. Air Canada and budget carrier Norwegian were tied for No. 2 at 94.3 percent of flights. Among U.S. based carriers, United was the top U.S.-based carrier. At No. 6, it had seats on 72.9 percent of its long-haul flights while American was No. 7 at 71.4 percent. Alaska Group and Delta tied for No. 12 at 51.4 percent.

The survey also tracked reward value returned per dollar spent on the base fare by comparing lowest available reward price in miles, and base fare booked at airline website. In terms of both basic payback and the highest payback to frequent flyer members with elite status, Alaska Group Mileage Plan members received 11.7 percent or 26.3 percent return on dollars spent.

As frequent travelers are well aware, earning miles or points is rapidly shifting to spend-based methods rather than distance flown. Of the 25 airlines in the 2018 survey, 11 now use ticket prices to determine mileage and points accrual.

Those changes are affecting how airlines deliver reward travel to members. In ways both obvious and subtle, the prices of reward tickets are being influenced by cash fares. That is due in part to the global expansion of low cost carriers, which has created pricing disruption. Global network airlines are realizing the old binary method of using reward tables based on distance creates unreliable reward value. Members increasingly believe low fares should correspond to lower reward prices. For example, reward prices as low as 12,000 miles round trip were found on select Delta routes in the U.S., where the previous price was 25,000 miles round trip.

My take

While the improvements in availability are certainly a positive, remember the adage, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." Read my article "The cost of a 'free' ticket" for more.

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photo by Carl Dombek
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