There's some good news for air travelers: it seems to be getting easier to actually get a seat on a plane from reward points.
That's the main takeaway from an annual ranking of the efficiency of frequent flyer programs at 25 of the world's biggest airlines.
Wisconsin-based consultancy IdeaWorksCompany worked with Irish travel firm CarTrawler to pose as would-be travelers on many of the world's largest airlines and frequent flyer programs. They tabulated how good the programs are about actually letting members spend their points to buy basic, no-frills seats on some of the world's most common flight paths.
IdeaWorksCompany president Jay Sorensen sums up his assignment simply: answer to the common question of "How easy is it to get flights with this program?"
To figure it out, in March of this year, surveyors made 7,420 requests for medium and long haul flights from the various websites of reward programs.
Each time, testers were looking for two tickets at the lowest possible price point, for two legs of a trip, and would need at least one option on the requested day, and at least one option for a flight back, six days later, in order to be registered as a successful attempt. The requested dates for all flights were in the busy travel season between June and October of this year.
Overall, the system found that it was able to successfully get a basic seat, 73.6 per cent of the time, across all the airlines surveyed. That's slightly higher than last year's score of 72.4 per cent. The first year the ranking was done, eight years ago, the average score was just 66 per cent, before steadily improving every year since.
Southwest 100%, Air Canada 96.4%
While the trend is moving in the right direction, there were some big variances in the numbers between individual airlines.
U.S. discount carrier Southwest got a 100 per cent score — meaning the testers were able to get an acceptable seat, 100 per cent of the times they tried. The discount airline benefits from the fact that the vast majority of its flights aren't long haul over oceans but are rather short haul flights between mid-market U.S. cities, and often have multiple flights per day to squeeze people in.
Second overall was Air Canada, with a score of 96.4 per cent when booking with Aeroplan points. That was an improvement of 6.4 percentage points from the previous year's level.
WestJet, meanwhile, came in 20th overall, with the equivalent amount of WestJet Rewards points earning a basic seat, by the ranking's definition, just 57.1 per cent of the time. This year was the first year that WestJet was included in the ranking, so there was no annual improvement or decrease to compare it to.
And the people who crunched the numbers were also quick to note that different airlines may have different scores because they all let members accrue and spend points in different ways.
Seat cost more
WestJet, unlike most airlines, lets users accrue and spend WestJet dollars on a so-called "dynamic pricing" model — one where the amount of points required for any given flight will fluctuate. Other airlines, like Air Canada, have moved toward flat rate points systems where the cost of the flight wont generally change much in points terms, but availability might.
In many cases, Sorensen said in an interview, WestJet didn't register a successful booking attempt on the testing because while a seat was available, it may have cost more in WestJet dollars than a similar flight would have cost in Aeroplan points.
He cited one example of a Winnipeg to Vancouver route, where Aeroplan had a seat available for 15,000 points. Because of the way the two programs earn points, that's the equivalent of 150 WestJet Rewards dollars.
For that same Winnipeg to Vancouver trip, WestJet offered a ticket for 114 WestJet dollars — even better than the 150 dollars it should have cost, by Aeroplan's method. So both airlines would have passed the test in that example.
'At what price'
On another Vancouver to Calgary trip, Aeroplan offered a seat for 15,000 points. But a test of WestJet for flights on the same travel days came back with a cost of 182 WestJet dollars — "so we marked it zero on our binary system," he said.
"Both programs can claim that their reward programs are always available," he said, "but at what price is my question."
Factoring in all the numbers, the ranking calculates that basic Aeroplan members earn about 2.4 cents of travel rewards for every dollar they spend. WestJet members earn 1.8 cents worth of value. The average across all airline programs is 5.8 cents per dollar.
Asked for comment, Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said: "We are very pleased to see Aeroplan rated so highly. The survey reflects our continued commitment to rewarding our customers for their loyalty."
Air Canada has previously announced it plans to dissolve its relationship with Aeroplan by 2020, and start its own loyalty program instead.
WestJet did not immediately reply to a request for comment for this story.
While on the whole the findings were good news for consumers, Sorensen says part of the improvement in the numbers is because of how airlines let people to earn points now, not just spend them. Airlines used to reward travelers based on how far they flew — hence the frequent flyer "miles" that passengers earn.
Increasingly, however, most are now moving to a world in which they award loyalty points not based on the distance of the flight, but rather by how much you paid for the ticket.
That is especially true now that for many people, the primary way they earn frequent flyer miles isn't by taking flights, but rather by spending money on credit cards linked to certain programs.
"It shows how vital this component has become," Sorensen said.
"If you talk to airline people who run these programs, they are all going to have their story about some dentist in Nebraska who buys all of his medical supplies using his credit card," he said. And that person, he said, "has amassed a million miles without ever getting on an airplane."
Other airline reward programs with scores above 90 per cent include Turkish Airlines, JetBlue, Lufthansa and Qantas.
Here's a complete list of how the airlines scored — in blue — along with how much they improved by or got worse by, in red.