Rated best US airline award program 2017: Alaska Airlines MileagePlan!

US News & World Travel Report rated – again  Alaska Airline’s Mileage Plan as the top rewards program for airlines in the US. This year’s runner up is Delta SkyMiles, followed by JetBlue’s TrueBlue. While this might come as a surprise to many miles & points fans, different people look for different things in an airline award program. US News & World Travel has published their criteria for the rankings, so you can figure out if the ranking makes sense for you!

Without further ado, here is the full list of the US airline rewards programs and their ranking in 2017.
The first surprise is that most of the programs (except Hawaiian) have a higher rating than last year. That seems counterintuitive after a year of mileage devaluation, higher earning requirements and the endless elimination of frequent traveler perks. 
Delta SkyMiles has improved from 3.99 to 4.19, squeezing by JetBlue and Southwest into 2nd place. Last year’s 5th place, Virgin America was taken over by Alaska and the rest of the chart is unchanged from 2016, with United and American Airlines on the next spots and the budget carriers Frontier and Spirit at the bottom of the field.

Delta is a big surprise in this ranking for me, so let’s look at the criteria US News & World Travel Report used and how they were weighted:

     45%:   Ease of Earning Free Round-trip Flight
     25%:   Additional Benefits
     10%:   Network Coverage
     10%:   Award Flight Availability
       5%:   Number of Daily Flights
       5%:   Airline Quality Rating

I commend US News for using an evaluation method that’s based on clearly defined criteria. That gives us a chance to review in detail and compare their criteria and weightings with our own. Even if we don’t agree with the ranking, it does provide a valuable data point in picking your reward program, rather than relying on the anecdotal evidence and personal opinions you can read all over the web. Here is my take on the evaluation:
The ease of earning a free round-trip is based solely on earning points with flying. While that used to be the main source of miles, these days more miles are earned with credit cards, partners or promotions, making this criteria only partially useful! A credit card sign-up bonus can earn you more miles than 10 domestic economy class tickets! Now that all airlines except Alaska have moved to revenue based earning, the main differentiation is really how easy you can earn miles elsewhere!
The study looks at the redemption cost for domestic economy flights, when the best value in redemptions is really in international business and first class. I almost exclusively use my miles for premium cabins when the value can be significantly higher!
The ranking also gives little weight to the availability of flights – which to me is an important factor: If I can’t use my miles for travel they are worth nothing. I sat on Delta miles more more than a decade, because I could never find saver award flights, drastically reducing their value. It has become even worse, as Delta no longer publishes an award chart, so having “availability” often means paying a much higher price for your award ticket!
Lastly, the Airline Quality Rating used is based on the analysis done by Wichita State University. It is a sign of the sad state of affairs of US airline service, because it only looks at how consistently the airlines deliver the minimum service of getting you and your luggage to your destination on time, without extreme issues. I frankly expect a lot more from an airline, for example comfortable seating, friendly service on the ground and in the air or good food and entertainment. Getting people from A to B just means that you are doing your job, but it is not a “job well done”! I find the SkyTrax airline ratings a lot more helpful in picking an airline!

I reviewed the Best Hotel Rewards Program two weeks ago and the criteria for hotels were chosen and weighted more realistically.
The Airline Rewards Ranking has a number of flaws that make it much less useful. If you are a US based flyer who is earning miles only by flying and are planning to redeem for domestic economy class flights, this ranking is relevant for you and can help you with your reward travel.
If that doesn’t describe your travel needs and award redemptions, consider this ranking an additional data point for picking your airline rewards program of choice. You can find plenty of reward program reviews and news on this blog – please follow me on Twitter or sign up for my newsletter for a Sunday Summary to get regular updates!

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