“Delta award availability sucks”. If you spend much time in the frequent flyer community, you’re bound to hear that, or something very similar. For newcomers, this can be confusing. After all, if you plug in just about any flight request into Delta’s award search engine, you will find award availability. The problem is that most of the options will require huge numbers of miles. That’s because Delta has multiple levels of awards, currently called “Saver”, “Standard”, and “Peak” (and they plan to move to a 5 levels next year). When frequent flyers talk about award availability, they’re looking explicitly for the lowest priced awards. When people say “Delta award availability sucks” they mean that they can’t find saver level awards.
Lately, many of my Delta award searches have returned a lot of saver level award space. So, I wondered if maybe Delta had turned things around? Also, with the AA / US Airways merger, I wondered if AA award space was better than before. I didn’t have any practical way to test all possible award requests across time, but I did run a limited test. I asked Wikipedia to tell me which metropolitan areas in the US were most populated (New York, LA, Chicago, and Dallas), then I picked a random date (July 22, 2014) to look for one-way award space between each of those areas.
For New York City, I included three airports: EWR, JFK, and LGA. For Chicago, I included ORD and MDW. For Dallas, I included DFW and DAL. For Los Angeles I included only LAX (because I was lazy). Here’s a picture of all of the routes I tested (courtesy of Great Circle Mapper):
For each award search, I recorded the lowest economy award price available at the time from each of these airlines: American Airlines, Delta, Southwest, and United. In each case I used the airline’s own website to check for availability. In each case I was careful not to log in since my elite status and/or credit card held with an airline could possibly skew results. All of the airlines in this experiment, except for Delta, offer one-way awards for half the price of round trip (Delta will do so starting Jan 1 2015). Delta currently shows the full round-trip price, so I recorded half of the displayed price in order to better match the results from other airlines.
Note that I did not pay attention to how good a flight was. I simply recorded the best available price in miles. So, flights that took off at 5:15 in the morning and had three stops along the way were treated the same as more desirable non-stop flights at reasonable hours.
Most airlines charge 25,000 miles for round-trip saver-level economy awards within the US, so for these one-way searches I was looking for awards to cost 12,500 miles or less. Southwest blew away the competition. They are the only airline in this roundup that ties award prices explicitly to current fares. With Southwest, every award search had availability for less than 12,500 miles with some available for as little as 7,032 miles.
The next best showing, after Southwest, was American Airlines. They had saver level availability on all search results except for two: Chicago to Los Angeles, and New York City to Los Angeles.
United was third. They had saver level availability on all search results except for three: Chicago to Los Angeles, Dallas to Los Angeles, and Los Angeles to Dallas.
Poor Delta came in last. Five flights were unavailable at the saver level. As with AA and United, all of these involved Los Angeles. Full results are shown in the table below. Awards priced over 12,500 are shaded red.
Given that this experiment was extremely limited (I picked only one travel day and four locations), we can’t really assume that these results are generalizable. The best we can really say is that it adds a bit of data to the conversation regarding which airlines have the best award availability. Does Delta’s award availability really suck? Well, from these results, I’d say yes if you’re traveling from or to Los Angeles (on July 22, 2014). Otherwise, their award availability was just as good as American and United.
This experiment raises more questions than it answers. What if I had chosen a weekend date rather than July 22, 2014 (which happens to be a Tuesday)? Would the results be different? What about flights during peak times such as Thanksgiving or Christmas? What about first class awards? Flights to and from small airports? International flights? Going forward, I hope to answer most of these questions with new experiments.
Do you find this type of report interesting? Do you have any suggestions for how I can improve similar experiments in the future? Please comment below.