New Study Ranks Airline Business And First Class Award Availability

The Wall Street Journal covers a new Idea Works study of award availability. Scott McCartney writes about Jay Sorenson’s effort to look at which airlines offer the best premium cabin long haul award space, and which airlines are the worst.

This isn’t about the best frequent flyer program for award redemption.

  • United Airlines offers very little long haul business class saver award space on its own flights
  • But MileagePlus still delivers long haul business class awards well – by letting members book awards on Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines. (In fact, United still largely prices partner awards based on an award chart!)
  • United fares poorly in this report – it’s about how much premium cabin award space is available on the airline itself.

Who Comes Out Well And Who’s Super Stingy?

United, Delta, and Scandinavian are the worst airlines at offering premium cabin award space on their own flights, according to Jay Sorenson’s new study. Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, Singapore, Emirates and Etihad are the best.

British Airways does much better than this in my experience. Even though American is towards the bottom of the list, my own experience suggests they’re far worse. McCartney notes that “85% of [American’s] redemptions are in the main cabin and 15% in premium cabins.”

United excuses itself by saying members can redeem for seats most of the time, with the cost of an award (exorbitantly) tracking that of a paid fare – and that availability may be better for Platinum elite members and higher. United acknowledges that finding a good award deal will be “tougher and tougher to find.”

Delta, for their part, suggested only that members are redeeming more miles than ever – not surprising when they have to spend more to claim a seat! – and that there are more and more opportunities to spend miles at a very low value for things other than award seats.

What About The Methodology, Do The Results Make Sense?

IdeaWorks made 3600 award searches for premium cabin awards across 18 airlines. They always searched for 2 seats at a time for travel between June and October. For each airline they looked at the 10 routes over 2500 miles with the most seats on offer.

There are some problems with the methodology that skew results, but overall I find the effort instructive. For instance,

  • Seasonality. They’re looking at summer/early fall travel, and an airline’s busiest routes (such as to Europe) might have the least availability when demand is highest. So it’s sensitive to what the airline’s biggest routes are and whether summer/early fall is peak or off-peak for the destination.

  • Award release strategy. British Airways award availability seems low to me. So does Air France. BA always releases business class awards when their schedule opens. Closer to departure those seats may be gone with additional inventory not yet opened (that’s frequently done closer-in than IdeaWorks was searching). Other airlines offer space in ‘waves’, where space is broadly available across the board and then not at all. That’s what I often find for Qatar Airways for instance. So results are highly sensitive to when you happen to search.

  • Choice of airlines for the study. Alaska Airlines doesn’t operate long haul flights and really shouldn’t be on this list.

The study doesn’t yet appear to be on Jay’s website so I’m basing my comments on how the study is represented by McCartney’s column in the Journal.

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. @ Gary — Oh, so many issues with this…AS is outrageously overpriced, LH business is very often available but is a horrible product, British Airways is a ripoff with the fees, and on and on…

  2. Wait, so is this explicitly looking only at “saver” level award availability?

    I’ve certainly never paid 150K one way on United for a TPAC or TATL business class ticket, but the methodology shouldn’t just automatically count that as a “zero” just beacuse the cost is higher?

  3. An interesting recent experience: very close to the time we were to return from LHR in Premium Economy, I looked into upgrading with Avios. The BA web site returned the message “No space available.” When I went to check in, we had been given upgrades with no expenditure at all. In other words, we received gratis what I had been willing to pay for.

  4. I’m surprised to see United at the bottom, given how much everybody always talks about the Chase-UR-to-United magic carpet ride to free travel.
    Not surprised to see Delta at the bottom, except I would have expected the VERY bottom.

  5. Read this in the WSJ earlier today and couldn’t stop shaking my head on how flawed the study seemed. It said it choose the airlines busiest routes. If they are so busy, why would the airline need to release awards seats?

    Of course the real answer to what is the best frequent flier program is all in the nuance and your own personal circumstances but that doesn’t make great reading.

  6. SAS is horrible with releasing long-haul business class space, so I can’t say I’m surprised they were at the bottom. I’ve boarded on SK flights where 1/3-1/2 of the business class flew out empty and yet no space was made available to me using miles despite hawking the paid and award inventory daily for months. Since I can’t easily find space for family or friends to go with me on SK flights using miles, I tend to book away from SAS more than I otherwise would do so.

    SAS seems to be an airline whose management and employees would rather keep the empty business class seats available for airline employees to take in some way than to make all those same seats available for mileage redemption at any point. And yet even when employees don’t want to book up and use up those available seats, the plane goes out often with way more empty seats in the front cabin than happens on other airlines I fly across the Atlantic.

  7. DL’s awful with releasing the “cheap” long-haul business class space, but SAS is worse in this regard.

  8. Alaska with 80-90% availability of “premium” cabin.

    Bravo Sierra.


    Alaska has at most 16 seats up front on a 737.

    If they release 80% of those seats for awards we’d expect to find 12 seats available for awards.

    No way.

    Alaska revenue management in the last year has cranked the award availability to one or two award seats when bookings open.

    They might release another pair of seats later if nobody is buying F. Maybe.

    At BEST Alaska releases 12-25% of seats for awards.

    This study is full of crap.

  9. I bet they didn’t “study” anything at all.
    More likely the list is based on what airline paid the most “lobbying dollars” to IdeaWorks and subsequently got the top spot.

  10. I don’t have difficulty finding international award seats on United or American…. because I fly economy, not business or first. I get two or three economy trips for the price of one premium trip. Three trips to Europe in 2019, two on United and one on American.

  11. finally a useful study as nobody really cares about domestic economy awards. interesting that there are no comments on the ramifications for transferable points (e.g. does Chase or Amex have better partners?)

    personally I concur with Gary – it is really the partner awards that matter as UA and DL rarely make space available at what was formerly known as “saver award” levels. both AS and UA deserve high rankings based on partner awards.

    As Gary notes, BA is one of the few that actually permits booking of real saver award seats when the schedule is released so it really should be ranked at the top of the list. However the high fees detract from the value…

    Finally query whether one should consider award “sales” in the rankings. For example AA periodically opens its calendar for saver awards on its own metal (hard to tell if this is planned or not) even for peak summer dates. DL has mostly worthless “sales” that target specific weeks and flights – rarely useful to most people especially for peak dates and locations.

  12. @not john, not sure how accurate the study is, but if accurate, it very much supports the magic carpet ride of UR points to United Miles to international travel. United has access to flights on all three of the top three international airlines in the study (albeit somewhat restricted access to two of the three).

  13. The timing is hilarious given that United launched an award fare sale to Tahiti a few days ago…

  14. Sure makes it seem like it would be hard to get to Europe using Oneworld. Which has also been my experience. I am really not sure what to do with my American miles— no availability on American metal and unreasonable fees on BA.

  15. @Charlie: Yeah and you can get two or three nights at a Comfort Inn for the price of a night at the Grand Hyatt. If I want a cheap flight to Europe or a cheap motel I’ll pay for it. If I redeem miles it’s to treat myself. You can buy ecomony seats to most of Europe for $300 these days, so it’s generally a huge waste of miles in terms of value per mile. Though I do know many people think like you.

  16. Obtaining first class or business award seats requires a lot of organization and planning. Too much, IMO.

    For me, the real value of the points game is the ability to book even international economy award flights on short notice (several weeks) and a few times a year. Just booked one again today for several weeks hence from USA to Southeast Asia. Available options are still both plentiful and economical. And when those options are limited, it’s easy to book economy tickets using Amex MR points, Chase UR points, Citi Thank You points or US Bank Altitude points (no blackout dates, tickets paid with points rather than cash, so airline frequent flier points awarded).

    That’s how I do it.

    And when I want to splurge on business or first-class seats (which I do occasionally), I just book the best fair through the International Airline Program on the Amex Platinum Travel portal, and am awarded 5X MR points for doing that.

    There. Easy.

  17. @Larry, I suppose I am one of the many fools who think like Charlie. I’m getting ready for an intricate award booking to Africa with United miles and excursionist perk in partner economy that would cost nearly $8,000 cash when I checked. Then I’ll bounce around Asia for a month around the Tokyo Olympics using American miles on partners. To me it’s dumb to waste triple the points or whatever the pricing happens to be just to be sitting in front of the plane for a few hours to Paris. But that’s “to me.” Each person has a travel style and needs to do what works best for them. Like Charlie I find this comparison of programs to be meaningless since those aren’t the awards I care to book. However, I know it interests some people (probably most of the VTFW readers), so it’s fine for Gary to present his take on it.

  18. LATAM is surprising and perhaps they secretly have more space available for its own members. But as far as partners (specifically American) it is dismal and not once in all the years have I found anything in business using Advantage. I imagine them at the bottom with SAS.

  19. AA for TATL needs to be much further down this list. Both UA and AA suck as far as saver award for business is concerned. I have looked for availability, and I have a fair amount of flexibility, found none and then bought a ticket anyway. Then the cabin is 50 – 75% full.

    That would make the score AA 1 me 0. They got what they wanted.

  20. The comments are more instructive than the study. Everyone has their own reasons for booking as they do. The study seems to back up my own experiences in flying since I retired (and thus, I pay out of my own pocket).

    My wife and I have agreed that we will never again fly internationally in the back of the plane — today’s airline equivalent of steerage. Our last flight, SCL-MIA in AA was about as bad as they come — 11 hours of torture, with inedible food and terrible service to boot. Those who wish to book in the back are welcome to do so — we will not join you there. Life is too short to put up with that kind of nonsense.

    I really do not have much problem booking award travel in business or first for the 3-4 trips overseas we take each year. If one tries to book as soon as possible after the seat map opens up, or watches the “flash sales” (DL tends to run quite a few of them good for only a 24 or 48 hour window) and is somewhat flexible, it’s not too much of a problem.

    Our experience here is that UA is very difficult, both on its own metal and *A. AA is OK domestically in F, but all we can get internationally for saver is BA (where the fees are outrageous). DL has better availability (just booked JFK-MAD for 48K each way in Z in April to attend a family function). But, SK is much easier than anyone else to Asia, and AF and KL are our airlines of choice for booking western Europe or Africa (booked CMN-DTW in Z in September on AF for 50K each).

    The true problem is, “What is ‘cheap’?” Is 50K each way in Z a good “price” for TATL? Is 100K each way in Z a good “price” for USA to Australia or New Zealand? Is it still a good rule of thumb that miles should price out to $.005 per dollar of fare for premium cabin travel, and a price less than that is a good deal? If so, is 50K is equal to $1000 of fare (I doubt it, but I don’t know for sure)? How does one know when it is better to spend miles or pay cash?

  21. Alaska Airline Mileage Plan has become totally worthless to me:
    ZERO availability from BOS to DUB in business class with EI for the ENTIRE YEAR! The only option available is BA with HUGE fuel surcharges. The same goes for other points in Europe.

  22. TO ALL…in re: Alaska. All I can say is YMMV. I have *never* had a problem getting long-haul tickets on various carriers using AS Miles.

    1) Last year in February, I booked two Business Class seats on Cathay Pacific (HKG-SFO) on points for a flight departing in 4 days — got the confirmation instantly. Then, had to cancel two days later, and re-book again two days after that. No problems; no hassle; any and all change fees waived…perfect. Point redemption value: 17.5¢ each.

    2) This month I booked two Business Class tickets from ATH-BOS for early October. Had four options, two routes on BA, one on AA (which duplicated one of the BA flights), and one on EK. Since we had the points and haven’t (yet) flown Business on Emirates, we opted to take that flight *even though* the number of points required for said tickets dramatically increased within the past two years…my wife and I figures it was a “bucket list” experience (we both know we’ll never fly Emirates in First), and we’ve flown Business on both AA and BA before. Besides, even though it was 105k each way in J, we only paid $77.15 total cash for taxes, which meant a redemption value of 10¢ per point!

    I believe all of you who say you’ve had trouble redeeming AS miles — and, @Ed, I’d merely point out that BA’s excessive fuel charges are not the fault of Alaska — but that hasn’t been my experience at all.

    [Note: redemption values are lower on Domestic redemptions but they have still been favorable in my experience.]

  23. @Ex-UA Plat, you misunderstood the statistics. They were searching for two seats on each flight and achieved this 80-90% of the time on Alaska – NOT that 80 – 90 % of the seats on every Alaska flight are available as award tickets.

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