Best and Worst Airlines for Reward Flights

Last Updated Jun 8, 2011 4:30 PM EDT

Thinking about joining a frequent flier program to snag a few free flights? You might want to avoid US Airways. When it comes to making reward seats available to frequent fliers, the airline ranks dead last out of a field of 24 major carriers, according to the recently released ezRez Reward Seat Availability Survey.

This study examines the availability of rewards seats on top carriers who offer frequent flier programs by peppering them with requests for two reward tickets on at least 140 different flights per airline. The study, conducted by Wisconsin researchers at Idea Works, tabulates percentage availability based on the resulting 6,720 booking queries.

The differences between carriers is nothing short of remarkable. Low-cost Latin American operator GOL ranks first in seat availability, according to the study, with an astounding 100% of survey queries yielding at least two reward seats. Southwest Airlines ranks second in this year's survey, having reward tickets available 99.3% of the time.

On the sorry end of the spectrum are US Airways and Delta Air Lines, which were far more likely to say "no" to their frequent flier ticket requests than to say yes. Reward tickets were available in just 25.7% of the queries made to US Airways and just in 27.1% of the queries made to Delta.

"If you have the ability to choose between reward programs and seat availability is an important feature, this study provides compelling information," says Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks.

There are other factors that might influence your decision when choosing between frequent flier programs, including flight frequency into your favorite airports. But when all other factors are equal, the availability of reward tickets can be the deciding factor, he adds.

Which airlines are the best and worst, when it comes to seat availability? Here are the top and bottom five, as well as the top five U.S.-based airlines.

World's 5 Best for Seat Availability
1. GOL: 100%

2. Southwest: 99.3%

3. Air Berlin: 96.4%

4. Virgin Australia: 91.4%

5. Singapore Airlines: 90.7%

World's 5 Worst for Seat Availability
1. US Airways: 25.7%

2. Delta Air Lines: 27.1%

3. Emirates: 35.7%

4. AirTran Airways: 47.1

5. Turkish Airlines: 49.3%

Best U.S. Airlines for Seat Availability
1. Southwest: 99.3%

2. JetBlue: 79.3%

3. Continental Airlines: 71.4%

3a. United Airlines: 71.4%

5. Alaska Airlines: 64.3%

Kathy Kristof is the Author of Investing 101.
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