A recent study done by Idea Works for Switchfly outlines the state of today’s frequent flier programs. And, the picture isn’t pretty when it comes to US airlines.

This poor report card combined with the recent Supreme Court case of Northwest v. Ginsberg, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-462, may spark Department of Transportation (DOT) interest in taking a look at frequent flier programs. Until now, with the court’s ringing acknowledgement that frequent flier programs were regulated at the federal level, DOT has not spent a lot of time looking at what it considered a marketing ploy similar to the old “Green Stamps” that were collected across the country.

Click here for the press release and additional chart from the study.

However, frequent flier miles have become a real currency and are now being openly sold by airlines. At some point, those award tickets and their availability will become an issue subject to misleading and deceptive practices even when the airlines maintain complete control and contractual ownership over these miles.

The basic findings are seen in the chart at the top of this post. However, when diving into some of the details, availability of award seats and the possibilities of using these miles can become an issue.

In the following chart, US airlines show frequent flier seat availability ranging from 100 percent for Southwest Airlines to only 35 percent for US Airways. And when American Airlines’ availability of 55 percent is combined with the US Airway figure, the total availability comes to 45 percent, still in the second-to-last place among the world’s major airlines.

Switchfly Reware Seat Availability Survey • Overall Reward Availability
Rated High to Low — Seat Availability for June-October 2013

FF_availability_2013

A report on this study conducted by the Wall Street Journal notes:

The survey, sponsored by technology company Switchfly Inc., checks online for two seats at the lowest possible mileage level on the busiest routes for each airline. That tends to be a coach ticket for 25,000 miles on U.S. domestic trips. The survey checked travel dates between June and October 2014 on 10 medium-length routes under 2,500 miles, plus 10 long-haul routes, a total of 280 queries for each airline.

By using each airline’s busiest routes, the survey checks where airlines have the most seats to offer and where travelers most often fly. Savvy travelers know an experienced phone agent can help find award seats that might not show up on the airline’s website, but this survey represents a more standard search.

You can bet that the issue of frequent flier miles and their availability will come up as airlines renegotiate deals with major credit cards — the biggest mileage customers for the airlines. When credit card members cannot find seats and cannot use their miles, airlines will take heat. Plus, DOT, in recent conversations directly after the Supreme Court case findings against Ginsberg, indicated that they have frequent flier miles on their radar screen. They pointed to the changes in denied boarding rules where frequent flier award seats must be treated just as paid seats when passengers face overbooking situations.

Time will tell. With the aviation policy agenda filled with the current Airline Transparency Act and the pending rulemaking that will deal with disclosure of ancillary fees, frequent flier miles may have to wait. But, regulation will be coming if the airlines do not get their house in order.