Iberia Airlines Tops Seat Availability in Frequent Flyer Rewards Program

Airplane landingAs the recession has tightened people’s budgets and made travelers more likely to use their frequent-flier miles to book trips, many wonder why it often seems so difficult to find reward seats for the dates, times and places they want to go.

But now a timely new report which ranks airlines according to how easy it is to find reward seats online could make the process easier for travelers.

It may even help explain why some airlines are more generous towards their frequent fliers than others.

Wisconsin-based IdeaWorks made 6,400 queries on 10 different airlines’ Web sites in an effort to find round-trip reward seats on popular transatlantic routes. Five of the airlines were American, and the rest were European. The queries were made for travel dates between April and November of 2009.

The results? Iberia Airlines came out on top, with 83 percent of queries yielding a seat. US Airways ended up at the bottom, with only 4 percent.

Lufthansa, British Airways and American Airlines ranked second, third and fourth, with 66 percent, 63 percent and 58 percent, respectively. Continental, United and SAS ranked seventh, eighth and ninth, with 36 percent, 18 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

OneWorld logoThe report explains that, with one exception, the airlines with higher success rates all include alliance partners in their online reward booking process. Iberia, for example, lets fliers search across all nine OneWorld partners (including airlines such as Finnair and British Airways), which increases the likelihood of finding a seat to Europe.

The big exception was American Airlines, which still yielded a 58 percent success rate despite not including partners in their online reward redemption system. The three other airlines in this category, Continental, United and SAS, all ranked at the bottom of the list.

These four airlines do allow passengers to book reward seats with alliance partners, but only by calling offline phone reservation centers. However, the authors of the report note that many frequent fliers prefer the convenience and clarity of booking online rather than by phone, which can often be time-consuming and difficult.

The inability to book reward partner seats online—and the low availability of reward seats in general—may well be a covert revenue-management strategy employed by airlines, who are also suffering from the economic downturn.

As many carriers face bankruptcy, and the recession cuts into their already razor-thin profit margins, loyalty programs are being cut back and trimmed down. Some airlines are boosting the number of miles needed to redeem an award seat, while others are charging a fee to book them.

Though few airlines disclose the total number of award seats available on their own planes (or partners’ planes), it would be logical to assume that these are being cut back too. In fact, US Airways disclosed in its annual report that only 10 percent of seats redeemed on its online system are with partner airlines.

The fact remains that fewer “free” reward seats available means that there is a greater likelihood that passengers will be forced to shell out their cold hard cash to buy a ticket.

What does this mean for the average traveler? It means that you’ll have be smarter and work harder than ever to redeem your miles and beat airlines at their own game. The IdeaWorks report is a good place to start.

Other resources include Yapta.com, which has a new feature that tells you when a frequent-flier seat may be available on your chosen route, WebFlyer.com, which lists frequent-flier promotions and deals, and MileMaven.com, a resource that allows you to search for frequent-flier promotions and special offers by route.

By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.

Related links: IdeaWorks Company, The Economist

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