The 2018 IdeaWorks award availability study is out.
- The top line that’s getting reported is that Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards offers the best award availability and that’s true as far as it goes. Although it’s also somewhat misleading.
- Another key takeaway is major improvement in American Airlines award availability, but that’s not as helpful as it may seem to anyone who cares about the value of their miles.
Here’s the top 15 airlines in their results:
If you read the FAQs for the study carefully it’s better done than before. They’re doing less picking and choosing of routes, less subjective exclusion of ‘undesirable’ itineraries.
Jay Sorensen’s work generally argues – I think wrongly – for revenue-based programs. The study’s structure favors short haul airlines offering revenue-based redemptions.
The study even acknowledges this, suggesting “Comparing a mileage based program, such as Alaska Airlines, to point-based programs such as AirAsia, does not represent the best application of the survey results.” Still, the study tries to compare them, normalizing ‘points’ based on credit card earning rates (specifically giving the example of saying one United mile is the same as one Southwest point, because their co-brand credit cards earn the same for unbonused spend, ignoring that one credit card may be more valuable than the other).
Unfortunately only the top line results will get cited by most people and they’ll come away with some wrongheaded conclusions about which programs are best as a result.
- Southwest offers a good program for what it is. If you want to earn more Southwest travel for your Southwest travel, that’s good, though you’ll never get outsized value for your points since the cost of an award is directly proportional to the price of the ticket. There is no leverage in the program outside of the Companion Pass and the ability to make fee-free changes.
- American’s award availability has gotten better — for connecting itineraries in coach — and it seems when ticket prices are cheap. That’s better than not offering the space, but again there’s little leverage to the points.
The value in frequent flyer miles has historically come from using points for tickets that would have been expensive to buy in cash. The airline makes award space available for seats that would go unsold, but often those are last minute seats they’re offering at a high cash price.
With planes full several airlines have moved to a more revenue-based model, assigning a fare value to points, so that points are essentially ‘buying’ revenue tickets. That means more availability than zero which is what might be offered on a full flight. But it also means you’re not getting a good deal with your miles the way you were before.
The IdeaWorks award availability study doesn’t factor partner award availability, looks only at March bookings for summer travel for two passengers, and looks at coach space. That matches how most members would book summer vacations, but doesn’t tell much to anyone looking for outsized value from a frequent flyer program.
Another component of the study is looking at rate of return for spending on travel from various frequent flyer programs. This is inherently biased towards revenue-based programs, and Sorensen suggests “Members with status really benefit from the accrual rates tied to spending.” However even under this methodology distance-based program Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan towers over all the others.
If all you care about is whether a reward seat in coach is available then you like short haul revenue based programs. If you care about getting value for your points you’ll prefer fixed award charts and the ability to choose when you buy tickets with cash or miles.