The Formula Airlines Use to Decide to Release Saver Awards

In order to understand why you’re seeing saver awards at a given time on a given flight — and why you’re not — we need to understand how airlines think about award space.

The idea of the capacity controlled saver award: Airlines want to release awards at the saver level that they won’t sell for cash. When a seat takes off empty, there’s no revenue, and so accepting a low number of miles doesn’t trade off with paid tickets for them. And even on flights that always have empty seats, some airlines won’t release saver awards every flight because they don’t want customers to learn that a free seat is always going to be available, so they don’t need to book paid tickets (this is especially true for premium cabin seats on better airlines).

When airlines release award seats: Airlines don’t know a year out which seats will go empty, except in broad strokes. They make make some award seats available when their schedule loads, but they’ll usually continue to re-evaluate as time progresses and they get information on sales of specific flights in addition to broader trends. Award seats may be added or taken away, having nothing to do with being booked by other passengers.

The best times to look for award seats: This will vary by airline, for instance some carriers will take a few weeks after schedules load to add award seats and others don’t monitor and adjust seats as regularly. But I find the best times to book are as close to a year out as schedules are available, six months out, and close in to departure (a week or even days). In contrast, most of the requests I get for help booking awards are for travel a couple of months out — which tends to be one of the worst times to book (advance award seats are gone, last minute dump of unsold seats hasn’t happened yet).

In general award availability is worse now than a few years ago: That’s because planes are full. Passenger traffic has been growing faster than capacity and as a result there aren’t a lot of seats expected to go unsold that airlines have been confident of releasing as saver awards.

That’s not true on all routes. New routes, and flights to areas where the economy isn’t doing as well, plus flights to seasonal destinations in shoulder and off season tend to offer more award space. And award space is tougher to the most popular destinations at peak times.

American began tightening award availability in 2012: Award space used to be great across the board but around mid-2012 they got tighter for international business class — although first class transpacific awards were easy, and so were domestic award seats. That’s no longer the case. Even aside from temporary glitches, the new normal seems to be very limited award space on American’s own flights.

American Airlines Boeing 777-200 Concept D Business Class

US Airways management has long been tight-fisted with domestic coach saver space: While I always found good award space in domestic first class on US Airways (very convenient for connecting to international premium cabin awards), US Airways coach was always difficult to come by and US Airways premium cabin international awards were as well. Whether correlation or causation, US Airways management at American has coincided with much tighter domestic award inventory at the New American, but without the generous first class space because the airline has gotten better at selling those seats for a modest premium.

At least they don’t play Delta’s games: Delta practices ‘journey control’ when redeeming miles for their own flights. You don’t just need saver availability on each individual segment, availability will vary depending on the connections you’re making too. They also have three week advance purchase requirements on most saver awards that they don’t disclose. And they hide how much awards are supposed to cost meaning unwary members will be none the wiser.

United has the best availability for international saver awards because they have the most partners. Star Alliance is larger than the other two major alliances, so you have more options with United miles than with Delta or American. United isn’t super generous with awards on their own flights, but given the number of scheduled flights between the US and Europe on Lufthansa and the myriad other Star carriers you can usually find a way to get there.

United Polaris Business Class Seat, credit: United

Delta is actually more generous with availability to Europe on its own flights than American or United, though that space is scrupulously available outside peak periods and it can be tough to connect to it if you aren’t originating in a hub.

Delta Business Class

Look to partners for award space, be willing to buy the domestic connecting segment: American’s primary transatlantic partner British Airways adds fuel surcharges to awards, and that hurts. But partners like Iberia, Cathay Pacific, and Etihad can offer strong award inventory. Fly on a partner, the domestic award inventory can be harder, so you may need to pay to get to the international gateway. (And if you’re flying on a non-oneworld partner even in a premium cabin it may mean checking, collecting and re-checking bags and paying bag fees for the domestic flight.) I think of poor domestic award space as being its own kind of fuel surcharge.

Etihad Airbus A380 First Apartment

Different airlines take different approaches, but the basic idea is that if an award is going to be likely to trade off with a paid ticket, the airline doesn’t want to make the award available at the ‘low’ points price.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Excellent analysis, Gary. The only thing I’d add is that the shrinking of US airlines’ award availability is substantially due to reduced competition, coupled with the fact that two of the three big legacy carriers are headed by the two execs who headed US Airways with a philosophy that is pretty award/upgrade-unfriendly (and that doesn’t even include Delta, which as you point out is even worse in some respects). We can probably expect things to get even worse at United as US Airways’ former COO settles in there.

    Interesting suggestion that award availability is sometimes better six months out than many other periods. Just based on your not-so-limited experience, or any data or rationale to support that tendency?

  2. This is a very good summary of the current state of award availability. It’d be interesting if we can figure out whether the release of award seats is done by software or manually (or a combination) at each airline.

  3. Great article. Thank you. Somewhat related, given that SPG transfers at 1:1.5 to LATAM PASS and SPG awards free 5K when 20K is redeemed, I think it’s a great opportunity to maximize value per mileage point (especially for someone like myself based in Miami, where there are tons of connections to Latin America). When I look at their website it seems like it’s a distance based program. Are you familiar with the seat availability via LATAM PASS? Is it just on LATAM or all of OneWorld? I’d look it up myself but due to some technical bugs, I can’t sign up online myself and I’ve been waiting to hear back from LATAM for over a week. Thanks very much.

  4. I know you are not a fan of Delta’s Skymiles program, and I realize that you generally don’t fly in coach. So, our experiences may considerably differ.

    I don’t mind flying in coach and do so somewhat frequently. When using miles for an award flight, I have found Delta’s saver availability to be much better over the past 1+ year. Saver availability on domestic economy travel on American has become just awful … a joke. It is often impossible to find on routes I fly, except on a random Tuesday.

    As a result, I rarely use my American co-branded credit cards. I’d rather accrue points/miles elsewhere, especially with more flexible programs such as Ultimate Rewards. Furthermore, I’m not about to pay an annual fee for a Barclays or Citi card as a result.

    Perhaps, at some point, the banks will exert some pressure on the airline to be a bit more reasonable.

  5. Just +1 to Ron’s observations.

    When it comes to availability Delta is the best one all around (except couple of unique routes like LAX-SYD or ATL-JNB).

    International. You can often quite easily find space in Y or J on TATL (and with AA it could easily be 10 month without a single seat available) + they run award sales in J 2-3 times a year.

    Domestic. Again. Wide open availability starting from 5,000 miles. I recently redeemed 5,500 miles for PHX-LAX when the price was $104. Lots of East Coast availability for 5,000-7,500 miles. Sometimes you get unheard value (don’t know why they do that). I redeemed 5,500 miles for WYS-SLC-SFO last September, when the price was $400. Also redeemed 11,000 miles for JFK-SLC-FCA when the price was $360. In both cases availability was readily available.

    American is in turn terrible. LAX-PHX almost 10 daily flights, $80 price tag and award seats might be available for a couple of flights per week (out of 60 total flights). LAX-PDX is sold for $55 and no award inventory. It doesn’t make sense. Looks like they just don’t try to apply any logic. JUST NO. Better fly empty – what they feel about saver award inventory at AA.

    United. I recently tried to redeem expiring Turkish miles. UA Domestic First seemed to be great value. Until very close to departure they release close to 0 award space, even on cheapest routes/flights. Ok, I didn’t expect to easily get EWR-SAN or LAX-KOA, but you would think LAX-SFO or EWR-ORD, or ORD-CHS would be available. Nope! You can buy F class for $149, but saver award space is simply non existent.

  6. Given the high percentage of miles that are sold to third parties — and now the diminished ability of most customers to earn lots of miles by actually flying — I’m a bit surprised that there isn’t better domestic award availability. What’s the going rate for selling a mile to a credit card company? You might think the airlines would be fairly agnostic about selling that seat in the lowest fare bucket vs. selling that seat via selling the frequent flyer miles. Better award availability would also encourage customers to “collect” frequent flyer miles (take their airline credit card out of the sock drawer), meaning the airlines would sell even more miles to third parties.

    The math must not be good enough, though, or they would already be doing this.

  7. @Ella:

    No, not an old article. Gary was talking in past tense. The former US Air management is now heading American (CEO, Parker) and United (President, Kirby).

  8. Gary you have no clue about AA! You have only been flying AA with any regularity since what 2012/13? Don Casey from LAA is leading RM. So stop reminiscing about old AA as if you had any clue what it is was like. You were too busy flying UA and getting $150 e-certs and sky kits for defective reading lights on your IAD-DEN 777 flights.

    As you well know, there are now up to five award levels for each cabin of service, so there is always award space available if revenue seats are being sold. You just want saver award space and to live in the past when AA had an overly generous last seat for double the saver level.

    Try to stay current and relevant. You seem to be living in the past. Having worked in RM at a major carrier let me say you have NO clue how it actually works!

  9. Waiting for American to release business saver award to Japan next march, hopefully it works out since I heard American have better availability to Japan than Europe.

  10. “And if you’re flying on a non-oneworld partner even in a premium cabin it may mean checking, collecting and re-checking bags and paying bag fees for the domestic flight.” Unless you can get your paid domestic ticket combined with the international award under the same PNR, you are going to have to reclaim/recheck your bags, even if both flights are oneworld or even both are AA.

  11. It would be nice if Josh G, “Having worked in RM at a major carrier ” would write an article describing how the process really works. The more we know the better we can make our own plans.

  12. Your analysis and Josh G attitude is a classic example about why many of us have totally abandoned the legacy carriers and are “only” interested in the UR, MR or Citi points…….Every time I see a foreign carrier add a non-stop to the US I cheer loudly! US carriers are dinosaurs………..

  13. Months ago I originally booked 2 F Class seats on ANA from IAD to NRT as we need to be in Sendai in early Sept. However, I looked everyday for United to open saver 1st Class seats as I wanted to save the 60k points since I was using United miles. Just this past Monday, they opened 4 seats for the day I wanted plus the 3 prior days which I took advantage of. Now, no seats are available even though I don’t see any seats taken on any of the flights.

    I was only booking out of IAD because I was having issues with domestic space from RIC at my original booking. The one nice thing that came from this, is, it made me think, and I booked Korean F Class back to IAD via FUK – ICN using Chase points.

  14. AA has the worst domestic award ticket availability to-from DFW (their so called “hub”) from other cities (even from AUS which is <200miles from DFW).

  15. @Josh G – complaining that this post limits itself to discussion of saver awards misses the point since the title identifies the discussion precisely about the release of saver awards.

    Legacy AA started limiting saver awards prior to the merger, but the current philosophy is very much in line with LUS. You can see this in the shift in declining % of seats taken by award passengers (at any award level) down towards the LUS level and below DL and UA.

    And stop your off-topic attacks on me which are both wrong and irrelevant, what does the fact that United used to find it a better strategy to compensate passengers than fix their planes have to do with the release of award seats?

  16. Talking about non-saver awards as though they somehow absolve airlines’ failure to make saver awards available is flat-out disingenuous. AA last-seat award prices are an absolute joke. Sure, you could use half a million miles to fly a single person across an ocean. For that matter, you could also use those miles to buy 300 Economist subscriptions. Doesn’t mean that either is a fair deal or that they’re worth it for any of us.

  17. Another angle that’s worth discussing is airline’s willingness to disclose partner availability. Frankly, if our goal is international travel in premium cabins, we try to avoid American carriers anyway (all else being equal).

    I applaud United for openly-showing customers all their options during booking, and absorbing fuel surcharges. Delta is also transparent about partner availability, even if they pass fuel surcharges onto the customer. American deserves more criticism than they do for only showing a handful of partner availiboty when booking online; I doubt it’a a matter of IT incompetence.

  18. Waiting for you to call out AS getting away with the reduction of short haul flights last Dec. to 5,000 miles eliminating many of them from saver partner awards. Paltry availability on any route, while the 7500 mile awards remain prevalent.

  19. @Pat – you are aware that the United calendar is perma-broken, right? By no means will you see “all the options”. Days that on the calendar show no premium cabin space often have plenty of seats available.

  20. @UA-NYC – if all the options are not seem how do you get the premium cabin seats? Do you call or find it on a members website? I’ve checked ANA flights on the UAL site for premium seats which weren’t available. Should I keep checking UAL to see if awards open for ANA or go to the ANA site?

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