May 26, 2011 -- Signed up for an airline rewards program and hoping to turn your hard-won miles into a free seat? If you're a U.S. traveler, you'll have the best chance if you're a member of Southwest Airlines reward program "Rapid Rewards."
The airline was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 2 in the world by the ezRez Reward Seat Availability Survey for finding a seat. Travelers in Southwest's program have a 99.3 percent chance of getting a reward seat when they want one, living up to the airline's promise of "unlimited rewards seats and no blackout dates."
"Consumers continue to feel the pinch of a difficult economy. More than ever, they expect a tangible reward for their loyalty to an airline, " says John Swanciger, chief commercial officer for ezRez Software, the sponsor of the survey.
"Rewards of all types, such as air travel, hotel accommodations, and retail merchandise, are the tools airlines use to fill that expectation. Social media has made the frequent flier world less of a mystery and savvy travelers have a better awareness of which airlines truly reward loyalty and frequency of travel, " Swanciger said in a statement.
In a survey based on 6,720 booking queries competitors, Delta Air Lines and U.S. Airways didn't fare as well. The two carriers were at the bottom for free seats using a frequent fliers rewards program – ranking 23 and 24, respectively.
Travelers signed up for Delta Airlines "SkyMiles" program had a 27.1 percent chance of finding a seat and US Airways "Dividend Miles" members had it even tougher, with a 25.7 percent chance of locating a free seat.
On the other hand, low-fare airlines fared well in the survey with GOL, a low-cost Brazilian airline, ranking number one. The carriers rounding out the top 5 included Air Berlin, Virgin Australia and Singapore Airlines.
There was some good news for U.S. travelers. Passengers that are a part of JetBlue's TrueBlue reward program have a 79.3 percent chance of finding a reward seat. Other airlines, like, United Airlines, Continental Airlines, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines were scattered around the list. United Airlines had a total availability rate of 71.4 percent and American Airlines had a 62.9 percent availability rate.
But, access to free seats isn't the only attribute for a good rewards program.
"Traditional airlines are seemingly more stingy with rewards but offer other benefits such as entry to airport lounges, upgrades to premium cabins and access to worldwide flight networks," according to Ideaworks.
Rank U.S. rank Airline Program % Total Availability 2011 vs. 2010 1 GOL SMILES 100% New for 2011 2 1 Southwest Rapid Rewards 99.3% No change 3 Air Berlin topbonus 96.4% -2.2 pts 4 Virgin Australia Velocity Rewards 91.4% +1.4 pts 5 Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer 90.7% +13.6 pts 6 Lufthansa/SWISS/Austrian Miles & More 85.0% -0.7 pts 7 Air Canada Aeroplan 82.1% -11.5 pts 8 2 JetBlue TrueBlue 79.3% New for 2011 9 LAN LANPASS 75.7% New for 2011 10 Qantas Airways Frequent Flyer 75.0% +2.1 pts 11 3 United Airlines Mileage Plus 71.4% +2.8 pts 12 4 Continental Airlines OnePass 71.4% No change 13 Iberia Iberia Plus 70.7% -5.7 pts 14 Cathay Pacific Asia Miles 66.4% -0.7 pts 15 Air France/KLM Flying Blue 65.0% +8.6 pts 16 5 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan 64.3% -10.7 pts 17 6 American Airlines AAdvantage 62.9% +5 pts 18 British Airways Executive Club 61.4% -3.6 pts 19 SAS Scandinavian EuroBonus 52.9% -11.4 pts 20 Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles 49.3% +14 pts 21 7 AirTran Airways A+ Rewards 47.1% -20.8 pts 22 Emirates Skywards 35.7% -0.7 pts 23 8 Delta Air Lines SkyMiles 27.1% +14.2 pts 24 9 US Airways Dividend Miles 25.7% +15 pts