Last updated: 03:00 PM ET, Fri May 13 2016

Which Airline Has The Most Flier Friendly Rewards Program?

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | May 13, 2016

Which Airline Has The Most Flier Friendly Rewards Program?

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

The annual Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey rates airlines’ frequent flier programs on the most fundamental level. It looks into how easy it is for loyalty program members to cash in their rewards points or miles to pay for flights. 

The results of this year’s (7th annual) survey are especially interesting as major airlines make the switch from miles-based rewards to spending-based rewards. Have these recent alterations to frequent flier programs made it more difficult for people to cash in their miles? 

Are loyalty programs getting better?

According to the survey, it is actually easier to spend rewards points now than at any time over the past three years. Rewards seats were available for 76.6 percent of the queries made during the 2016 survey. The overall availability was 74 percent in 2015 and 72.4 percent in 2014. 

READ MORE: The 2016 ‘Freddie Awards’ Reveal High-Flying Loyalty Programs

The survey also included top international carriers.

So which airlines are the best when it comes to spending rewards points? 

Both airberlin and Southwest had perfect scores. This means that rewards seats were available every time there was a query. Virgin Australia, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines and Air Canada all had over 90 percent availability, with Turkish improving 28 percentage points compared to 2015. 

Alaska, United and Delta lagged behind these leaders with scores of 72.9 percent, 72.1 and 68.6 respectively. American Airlines was the third worst in the whole survey with only 56.4 percent of queries yielding positive results. Only Avianca and LAN, at 53.6 and 45 percent, had lower scores. 

The survey included 25 frequent flier programs. Data from more than 7,000 fare queries and actual bookings was used. The survey was conducted by the IdeaWorksCompany. Flight dates used for the searches were between June and October. 

Dates matter

The survey also showed that dates mattered. For example, the highest availability for rewards seats was outside of the peak summer travel season. Overall availability was 84.8 percent for flights in October. However, it was only 63.2 percent in July. 

Overall value

This year’s survey also had a new metric: reward payback. This is meant to measure the overall value of rewards in relation to dollars spent. Across all North American airlines, the average was 5.5 percent per dollar spent. JetBlue’s TrueBlue program had a payback percentage of 7.9 percent. Alaska came in next at 7.8 percent, while Southwest was third with 7.3. These three airlines were more than two percentage points above the next North American carriers in terms of overall value.

Long-haul ratings

Reward availability for long haul flights was also measured separately. Four carriers had over 80 percent availability for routes that were longer than 2,500 miles. Air Canada and China Southern came out on top with 88.6 percent each. Turkish and Lufthansa also scored particularly well when it came to long haul rewards spending. United was the top U.S. carrier, by far, in this category with 71.4 percent of rewards queries meeting with positive results.  

READ MORE: Does Alaska Airlines Now Have The Best Frequent Flier Program?

What does all this show?

First of all, despite all the talk to the contrary, it is actually easier, overall, to cash in rewards points this year than in previous years. Switchfly CEO Daniel Farrar says that (at least some) airlines are waking up to the fact that their customers are smart and expect value: “This survey reflects the fact that airlines can’t afford to take their customers for granted. 21st century consumers are savvy and plugged-in. They know 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.”

Some airlines, especially U.S.-based legacy carriers, are lagging behind when it comes to offering this kind of value, but Southwest and JetBlue are ahead of the curve and are even competitive with major international airlines. 


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