Perception/Reality

Perception/Reality

Perceptions and Realities. They’re as individual as members of frequent flyer programs.

No one can deny that, in recent years, millions of free awards have been issued to frequent flyer program members. That’s reality, or at least a small sliver of it. Despite this fact, the industry has been increasingly hampered by the perception that “airlines are cutting back their programs,” “no one can get a free award” and “there are no free seats available.”

Sound familiar?

This negative perception regarding award availability, or the lack thereof, is not a new problem for the airlines. In truth, because the industry has consistently failed to address the issue, it has allowed itself to fall victim to these rumors. Perhaps the airlines’ best chance to put the topic to rest came in 1999, when customer uproar led to the development of the Customers First initiative.

Remember that? Rather than step up to the plate and release statistics showing exactly how many awards were offered on each flight, every single airline, along with the Air Transport Association (ATA), lobbied for and were granted the option to simply publish information about the number of awards redeemed — not the number requested — and that was that.

Well, here we are four years later, and many of the airlines aren’t even keeping to this reduced standard. American, Continental and United do publish the results of their award redemptions on an annual basis. But nowhere on the Web sites of America West, Delta, Northwest or US Airways were we able to find a “published annual report” on award redemptions even though, according to the ATA, these airlines promise to publish a Customer Service Plan that contains award redemption information.

Ok, enough of that. Let’s get back to reality.

Some award redemption numbers are available if you know where to look, and those numbers tend to show that some programs are more generous than others. For example, Delta SkyMiles has the highest percentage of award redemption travel, at just over nine percent. That’s nearly one in every 10 Delta travelers flying for free.

In the last 10 years, among all programs, award redemption has nearly doubled annually, from 8.4 million awards in 1993 to 15.8 million awards in 2003. And this doesn’t take into account the growing number of upgrade and partner awards being redeemed each year — not an insignificant number considering the rapid growth of global and domestic program alliances. In 2003, 16.7 percent of the total awards issued by the American AAdvantage program were issued on other airlines. When factoring in upgrade, partner and other special awards, the 15.8 million awards issued by airlines in 2003 represent only about 62 percent of the total awards redeemed.

In the ‘fact’ department, that’s fairly respectable.

With all this in mind, the question becomes; how do we, as frequent flyers, reconcile these differences in perception and reality? Assuming the truth falls somewhere in the middle, how do we determine where that ‘somewhere’ is exactly?

We decided to put the perception to a test by actually calling the airlines and trying to book awards. What we found may surprise you. But to be honest, we weren’t looking to surprise; we were looking for real-world redemption tips you can actually use to get the award seats you want.

While members can easily compare differences in the programs by researching award charts, elite-level benefits and even program partners, the one thing they have absolutely no information on is award redemption research such as this. And after all, isn’t the end game to most members their ability to redeem an award.

A few years back, InsideFlyer commissioned a travel research company to pour over the data from airlines and put together a list of the top award destinations in the industry, as well as the top city pairs (you can find this information in the “Press” section on InsideFlyer.com). To conduct this test, we randomly picked several city pairs from that list, knowing in advance that, because they were among the most popular, they would also be the most difficult awards to get. Then we started making calls.

Well, to be perfectly honest, we didn’t actually make the calls — for this task, we employed the services of AwardPlanner.

Since 1987, AwardPlanner (which is also owned by the same parent company as this magazine) has made it their business to secure award seats for their members around the world. A frequent flyer award travel agency if you will. They were recently honored by Conde Nast Traveler magazine as one of the world’s “Top Travel Specialists” and given that they have redeemed tens of thousands of awards over the years, we trust their overall expertise.

We asked AwardPlanner to try to book two coach awards between each of the selected city pairs. To find out if the inventory differed based on the method of booking, we also asked them to attempt to book the awards online, as well as over the phone. On international itineraries, we attempted to book not only in coach, but also in business class.

All of these award redemption bookings were made the first week of July for awards one week out, one month out, three months out, six months out and finally 11 months out. This range of dates put us into holidays (Christmas) as well as early planning for next summer.

In reality, we didn’t know what we would find. The prospects seemed grim, given the fact we were calling in the middle of summer and the travel forecast predicted a return to elbow-to-elbow flights. What’s more, we were only requesting ‘saver’ type awards, those that required the least amount of miles.

In short, we were faced with more obstacles than a 200-meter hurdler.

The results proved interesting indeed. We found that, despite picking solely ‘most popular’ award redemption city pairs, we could get ‘saver’ award seats 73 percent of the time!

Delta SkyMiles faired the best with an 85.4 percent award redemption availability record, while Continental OnePass finished dead last, as we could only book the awards we requested 54 percent of the time.

With regard to the very popular, and very scarce, business-class awards, we logged a dismal success rate. Only 54 percent of the time were we able to get the business-class awards we wanted. But it wasn’t a total loss, as we uncovered two programs that fared very well in this category — American AAdvantage and Delta SkyMiles. The AwardPlanner representatives were able to redeem miles for business-class awards on AAdvantage 92 percent of the time. We find that almost unbelievable and applaud the program loudly for the record. Delta SkyMiles wasn’t far behind at 80 percent.

Unfortunately, there had to be a last place as well, and when it came to redeeming business-class awards this unenviable distinction fell to Northwest WorldPerks, which only made available the awards we requested 15 percent of the time. Northwest’s partner, Continental, logged a somewhat better, but still dismal record, with 32 percent successful bookings. And we were surprised to find the United Mileage Plus program was only able to fulfill 40 percent of our award requests.

AwardPlanner also found slight differences when comparing call center vs. online redemption. For WorldPerks, there was no difference at all, and among the others there was only a very slight advantage to using the call center over the online redemption option, with the exception of two programs. Our representatives were able to book 18.5 percent more awards when using the OnePass call center, and a full 20 percent more awards when calling US Airways Dividend Miles, in comparison to booking online.

Among the other findings we unearthed with the help of AwardPlanner — Continental OnePass has a ‘sweet spot.’ Almost 100 percent of the awards we requested were at the three-month period. For example, LAX-HKG, LAX-HNL and ORD-LAX all were available at the three-month redemption request, while all other dates forward and backward were not available. Not a single one.

Also, Northwest offers the most options when it comes to booking online. At www.nwa.com, you can find partner availability, you have the ability to combine saver and standard awards, and WorldPerks is a rare program in that it allows international award booking online.

Finally, when booking with the Delta SkyMiles call center for domestic travel, they will not volunteer their partner award availability; you need to ask them to check. However when booking for international travel with SkyMiles, they volunteer all their partners.

To see even more of what we found, have a look at the following charts:

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As for perception and reality, the differences (and similarities) remain elusive. As far as any frequent flyer program member is concerned though, perception is reality, and the only reality that matters is being able to book the awards you want, when you want them. To that end, we hope this information proves useful in bettering your reality.

At the end of the day, we remain committed to urging the industry to adopt minimal levels of expectations for award redemptions — and to publish those levels, for each seat, on each flight.

If the airlines give each member a sense that their perception is indeed a possible reality, we have no doubt the members won’t be the only ones who benefit.

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