IdeaWorks released their annual Switchfly Reward Seat Availability rankings this morning and it seems that award availability is actually increasing with the majority of carriers, up 5 points this year.  Nine airlines received a score of 80% (regarded as high availability) in 2012 compared to only five airlines in 2010.  However, the big news is that discount airlines seem to provide the overall best availability, with results coming in at 93.55% compared to legacy carriers at 62.9%.  The survey suggests that the low cost carriers are more flexible with award availability as they cannot offer global destinations, upgrades, and lounge perks like the legacy carriers.

The survey was conducted in March 2012 by submitting 680 booking requests directly on the websites of the 23 airlines.  Travel dates were June through October and the top two routes for each carrier were checked for availability.  Compared to 2011, United was up 15.7 points, British Airways 17.9, and Airtran 40 points (post merger with Southwest). British Airways comes as no surprise as there is usually excellent award availability, though the fuel surcharges make some redemptions much more costly than their competitors.  American had one of the largest declines at 17.2 points, which is surprising for me as I find their award seats some of the easiest to obtain.  The survey indicated that AA’s score would have increased by 7.2 points if the April 2012 enhancements to include Hawaiian and British Airways awards were in place during the original queries.  Lufthansa, Singapore, and Virgin Australia all had results above 90% which is in-line with the availability I’ve found when making bookings for others.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that Delta’s SkyMiles program ranks last with only 27.1% availability at the lowest level redemption.  Unfortunately for SkyMiles members, with three award levels (Low, Medium, and High) it probably makes sense that Delta releases fewer seats at the low level to increase bookings at the medium level.

In terms of when to find the best availability, the survey does confirm that several airlines release award seats as the date gets closer and last minute travelers may have a much higher chance of snagging their award.

United remains constant at 87.5% compared to their normal 87.1%, however the big increases come from American (45.7% to 65%) and US (33.6% to 42.5%).  Delta seems to drop from 27.1% to 25.% which surprises me as I seem to have better luck with them about 2-5 days out from an anticipated trip.

Any other surprises? I’m still most surprised by AA, who I’ve found to generally have excellent availability, or at least greater than 45.7%. Though I very much doubt it, I sincerely hope that Delta looks at their rankings and reassess whether the SkyMile program is actually “best in class”.

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11 comments

Noah Kimmel May 17, 2012 - 10:06 am

I thought Jetblue allowed last seat availability for redemption…the price in points just changes

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adam May 17, 2012 - 11:17 am

@ Noah – they do, this survey looked specifically at the “low price” For JetBlue, rewards priced at 12,500 points (each way) qualified as low level reward travel.

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Unitedef May 17, 2012 - 11:37 am

Same with WN you can always book because there are no capacity controls.

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Tony May 17, 2012 - 11:42 am

My personal experience backs up the chart above… American isn’t great for awards. I’ve had to redeem lots of award flights in/out of central Illinois, and despite the fact that American has 3x the options (CMI, BMI, PIA) that United does (PIA) I’ve never had any luck on American at the low-level. Not even for last-minute (6 months) flights. (United’s not great either, but I always end up grabbing a seat at some point… usually last-minute)

United also seems to be best at releasing extra seats last minute. I’ve redeemed last-minute on flights that were at or near full-capacity.

I’ve been told that American has great availability, but I don’t see it myself… maybe for high-traffic, hub-to-hub, widebody routes?

And I’m not posting this as a United cheerleader. The in-flight experience is terrible, and I think it’s getting worse. The only reason I’m still sticking with them is because I find their miles very valuable-more so than the competition.

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adam May 17, 2012 - 11:45 am

@Tony – totally agree that UA has great last minute availability, even on near full flights. I guess being based near JFK/LGA/EWR my experience with AA might be different than most.

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Bob May 17, 2012 - 2:12 pm

People are absolutely crazy to collect Skymiles, this ranking at 27% is PATHETIC

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adam May 17, 2012 - 6:10 pm

@Bob, on the bright side Gary brings up a great point “It may be really easy to earn Skymiles, so it could even make sense to spend twice as many Delta points.” Check out his post here.

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Gene May 17, 2012 - 8:20 pm

Hey, at least Delta consistently sucks.

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IdahoSt May 17, 2012 - 9:34 pm

I like how The Points Guy goes on Radio Silence everytime there is bad news for Delta. I guess when you are accepting free Business Class tickets to Asia, you have to keep a certain decorum…

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