America’s Frequent-Flyer Programs Are Weaker Than Ever

Looking to fly in style to Europe on saved miles? Good luck.

Airplane cabin for U.S. airline
Are you a frequent flyer who can't seem to get a good international flight? Here's why.
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By Tanner Garrity / January 25, 2020 6:00 am

United States airlines are no longer setting aside their best seats for your big saver trip to Europe.

Since frequent-flyer programs took off in the ’80s, savvy American travelers have made a point to diligently save hundreds of thousands of miles in an effort to eventually redeem them for a first-class seat on a round-trip across the Atlantic. And for years, American, Delta and United indulged and encouraged the practice. The programs were good press for the airlines, they filled seats that would probably be empty otherwise, and their worth was obvious. “Miles” and “rewards” became synonymous; more and more travelers endeavored to save and get a taste of the sweet life, if only for six or seven hours.

But that tiny slice of the American Dream is disappearing, according to recent research from IdeaWorks reported in The Wall Street Journal. The consulting firm analyzed the availability of first-class and business awards for 18 different airlines, and U.S. airlines had a tough showing. Delta and United both finished in the bottom three of the rankings; the airlines had at least two first-class seats available for saver purposes on less than 20% of flights during a four-month period last year.

In other words: redeeming miles for a nice seat with either of those airlines is nigh impossible. In contrast, international airlines like Lufthansa, Singapore and Turkish Airlines almost always have such seats available, and have more of them ready to go at a time, too.

So, why is this happening? Because the largest U.S. airlines don’t want you redeeming miles for more legroom anymore. United and Delta no longer publish an awards chart (American does, but finished in the bottom seven of these rankings nonetheless), they’ve made the system trickier than ever (dynamic pricing means your miles earned may not always have a consistent reward), and credit cards have bought too many miles for FFPs, leading to a brand of mileage speculation in pursuit of a number of seats that don’t exist — especially when United and co. are selling them to wealthy and willing members of the 1%.

The good news, for Americans who want to make use of miles on a U.S. airline? Alaska got a terrific rating. They only cover domestic flights over there, but they do so at a terrific clip (90%). Go knock off all the States.

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