In February, the average commercial plane in the U.S. flew 76.6% full, the highest percentage for that month since World War II, according to the Transportation Department.

By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times

May 17, 2010

All airline mileage reward programs are not created equal. In fact, finding the right one is more crucial than ever.

With airlines eliminating routes because of declining demand and packing each plane as close to capacity as possible, it's getting increasingly difficult to redeem your reward-program points for a seat on a plane.

In February, the average commercial plane in the U.S. flew 76.6% full, the highest percentage for that month since World War II, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

To determine which airlines make it easiest to turn reward points into airline seats, IdeaWorks, a Shorewood, Wis., airline consulting firm, and EzRez Software Inc., a San Francisco-based travel supplier, made more than 6,000 booking queries on the websites for 22 frequent flier programs during February and March.

The study found that Rapid Rewards, the program for Southwest Airlines, had the highest rate of seat availability — 99.3%.

Other airline programs that ranked high in seat availability were Topbonus, the program for Air Berlin (98.6%); Aeroplan, the program for Air Canada (93.6%); and Velocity, the program for Virgin Blue, Australia's low-cost airline (90%).

The lowest rates of availability were for Dividend Miles, the program for US Airways (10.7%); SkyMiles, the program for Delta Air Lines (12.9%); and Miles&Smiles, the program for Turkish Airlines (35.3%), according to the study.

While some rewards programs let travelers redeem points for merchandise, hotel accommodations or rental cars, IdeaWorks President Jay Sorensen said you could get the best value by holding out for airline tickets, which airlines can offer at a cheaper rate than the other rewards.

"Every consumer has to do the math," he added.

Fliers expect fare hikes with merger

When Continental Airlines Inc. and United Airlines' parent company, UAL Corp., announced a merger this month, the new executives of what may would become the world's largest airline touted the union as a victory for passengers, employees and stockholders. But frequent fliers saw something else coming out of the merger: higher fares.

According to a survey by Rasmussen Reports, 42% of Americans believe the merger will result in higher fares. Of those who travel by air once a month or more, 71% expect higher prices because of the merger, according to the survey of 1,000 adults, conducted two days after the merger was announced.

Those frequent fliers may be right, said Ed Perkins, who writes the "Ask Ed" column for, an online travel resource site.

Perkins pointed out that both airlines have been struggling financially through the latest economic slump. The only way for airlines to thrive, he said, is to cut unprofitable routes, raise ticket prices and eliminate competition. By uniting, the two airlines are eliminating competition, he said, and now they can cut routes and bump up prices.

It's just a matter of time before the fare hikes begin, he said. "How quickly they can do that is anyone's guess."

Disparity in menu upgrades

In the last month, two low-cost airlines gave passengers a taste of their starkly different styles in announcing upgrades in their in-flight food and beverage menu.

San Francisco-based Virgin America unveiled a new wine selection designed by wine expert and author Gary Vaynerchuk, who will host an in-flight wine tasting for the airline this summer.

The new complimentary choices for first-class passengers include 2008 Turnbull Sauvignon Blanc and 2002 Arrowood Sonoma County Merlot.

Meanwhile, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines announced the addition of Corona Extra beer for $5 a can.

The airline is promoting the Mexican brew with an online video that shows dancing airline passengers dressed in giant sombreros, Mexican serapes, grass skirts, Hawaiian leis and coconut bras.