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The Best U.S. Airline for Award Flights? Try Southwest

Oops, cat’s out of the bag. Now what about the rest?

Congratulations, you’ve got a free ticket. Unfortunately, there are no seats to anywhere that you actually want to go. That kinda defeats the purpose if you ask me.

Turns out IdeaWorksCompany a consulting firm, crunched the numbers to see what airline came out on top. To see what was available, they looked for two seats on each airline’s 10 busiest long routes and 10 busiest short routes on 14 different round-trip dates during the summer months. I’ve gotta warn you, the survey only looks at how easy it is to book a free flight and not which airline has the best redemption values, so keep that in mind.

Look, frequent flyer programs are designed to suck you into a deep, dark hole but if you’ve been playing the game correctly, you can still come out unscathed on the other side with a  few free flights. The trick may just being smarter on where to book your flights.

In the States, Southwest and JetBlue are the best, having close to 95% and 88.6% availability respectively, when looking for flights about five to 15 days before departure. (This was the same measure that everyone was tested against.) It turns out that generally discount airlines had more seats to give away than traditional “legacy” carriers. Jay Sorenson, who heads Ideaworks, says some airlines “consciously provide more award seats.” Hmph.

United, Alaska and American end up playing second fiddle to Southwest and JetBlue’s act, but still pull in a respectable showing. Delta and US Airways had the worst. They don’t call Delta SkyMiles SkyPesos for nothing.

If you’re the adventurous sort that belongs to another frequent flyer program for some reason (which may or may not involve trying to make Star Alliance Gold), the data is also available for international and foreign carriers.

Here’s the full list of rankings between some American (bolded) and foreign airlines, when it comes to awards. If you’re wondering why we left the percentages next to the Uncle Sam’ers, it’s because we’re masochists.

  1. Air Berlin
  2. GOL
  3. Southwest Airlines 100.0%
  4. Virgin Australia
  5. AirTran Airways 95.0%
  6. Air Asia
  7. JetBlue Airways 88.6%
  8. Singapore
  9. Qantas
  10. Lufthansa/SWISS/Austrian
  11. United 80.0%
  12. Air China
  13. Air France/KLM
  14. Air Canada
  15. British Airways
  16. Alaska 56.4%
  17. Cathay Pacific
  18. LAN
  19. AviancaTaca
  20. SAS Scandinavian
  21. American 48.6%
  22. Emirates
  23. Turkish
  24. Delta Air Lines 36.4%
  25. US Airways 36.4%


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