Busy meeting planners can amass thousands of frequent flier miles, but if they can’t redeem the rewards points when they want, what good is it? Switchfly, a travel ecommerce and loyalty platform, has released the results of its annual Reward Seat Availability Survey examining how easy it is for loyalty program members to redeem rewards points or miles. Guess which airlines came out on top?

The Envelope, Please

This is the seventh year Switchfly has commissioned its survey of top national and international carriers. (The actual survey and data was compiled by IdeaWorksCompany of Wisconsin.) It examined 25 frequent flyer programs, and included more than 7,000 fare inquiries and actual bookings.

Southwest, Airberlin and Virgin Australia placed within the Top Six each year; 2016 is no exception. In the most recent survey, Southwest and Airberlin tied for first place with scores of 100 percent, meaning that every flight queried provided seat rewards. Southwest offered a minimum of three flights for every query performed. Virgin Australia, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines and Air Canada all had more than 90 percent availability.

Mainstream American-based carriers did not fare as well. Alaska Airlines scored 72.9 percent; United Airlines came in at 72.1 percent; and Delta scored 68.6. American Airlines came in third from the bottom, with just a 56.4 percent score. Avianca, at 53.6 percent, and LAN at 45 percent brought up the rear.

The good news is that overall, reward seats were available for 76.6 percent of the queries made, which represents an improvement for redeeming reward points over the past three years. Overall availability was 74 percent in 2015 and 72.4 percent in 2014.

Other Notable Findings

  • Global carriers Turkish Airlines and Air China rose significantly in their rankings from 2015 to 2016. Turkish Airlines jumped from 15th to 4th place in reward seat availability, while Air China leapfrogged from 18th to 10th place.
  • Timing is everything. Customers who try to redeem reward seats in the summer will find that availability is limited, but it is easier to redeem reward seats in off-peak seasons. Month to month, the survey found that overall availability was 63.2 percent in July, and 84.8 percent in October.
  • Those who seek to redeem miles for long flights (those defined as more than 2,500 miles) will be happy to note that long-haul availability has improved significantly. In the Switchfly survey, Air Canada and China Southern came out on top with 88.6 percent each. United was the top U.S. carrier in this metric; 71.4 percent of rewards searches yielded seats. Eight airlines boasted availability scores above 70 percent for 2016, contrasted with just three in 2010.
  • This year, for the first time, researchers also analyzed reward payback, which they define as the overall value of rewards in relation to dollars spent. In this metric, JetBlue’s TrueBlue loyalty program had the highest payback—7.9 percent. Alaska came in second at 7.8 percent; Southwest placed third at 7.3. The average for American carriers was 5.5 percent.