Cashing in frequent-flier miles — or, at least, trying to — has long been a sore subject for business travelers, who complain that free seats are never available when they want them. And newly announced cuts in capacity by several major carriers, including Delta, American and United, could make the problem worse.
Last week Continental Airlines (CAL) said it would reduce about 11% of large-jet capacity in September, and other airlines — Delta, (DAL) American (AMR) and United (UAUA) — have announced double-digit capacity cuts for fall.
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"I think a pullback of capacity will reduce the number of seats allotted for reward travel," says Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks, a Wisconsin consulting company that regularly conducts airline and travel industry marketing studies.
United Airlines spokeswoman Robin Urbanski says fewer flights will mean fewer free seats overall for frequent fliers, but each flight will have the same number of free seats as in the past.
American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner says "too many factors" are involved — such as customer demand and amount of seats filled for each flight — to determine now whether the number of free seats will be affected.
Many frequent fliers are skeptical.
"With cutbacks, just pure mathematics tells you that there has to be less seats," says Scott Zebedis, of Denver, who works for a non-profit foundation and flew more than 100,000 miles on United last year.
The route and flight cuts could change the conclusions drawn from a recent study that said that carriers have been "unfairly criticized" about the availability of free seats in frequent-flier programs.
The IdeaWorks study, done in April and May, shows that "a reasonable supply" of free seats is available to frequent-flier members.
Sorensen says that could change after the fall cutbacks because, "When an airline is faced with the decision of giving a seat as a reward vs. selling it to a customer, the choice has traditionally been to sell it."
For its frequent-flier study, IdeaWorks made 5,210 queries in April and May for free seats to eight airlines' websites. Three-quarters of the queries were for at least two seats on round-trip flights to U.S. destinations this summer, or Sept. 4, 2008, through Jan. 26, 2009, excluding holiday periods. A quarter of the queries were for seats for a family of four for summer flights.
IdeaWorks inquired about free seats for the minimum amount of miles or credits required in each program and selected, based on federal government data, the most popular destinations for award travel on each airline.
Free seats are easiest to book on American and Southwest, (LUV) according to the IdeaWorks study. It also concluded that it's difficult for a family to obtain free seats from most carriers a few months before a summer vacation.
Free seats to Hawaii and other vacation destinations affected by the cutbacks could get tighter, but the cutbacks may have less impact on busy routes between major cities — the most popular awards. The most popular free flights last year, for example, were New York-Los Angeles on American and Atlanta-New York on Delta, Sorensen says.
Despite IdeaWorks' findings, some frequent fliers are not convinced that airlines are making a sufficient amount of free seats available.