Frequent-Flyer Seats: Sorry, All Full

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The U.S. Department of Transportation last week released the final copy of a new proposal to protect the rights of air travelers. Among other things, the Obama Administration wants to ensure that passengers receive higher compensation for being "bumped" from flights and that they are able to cancel reservations, without penalty, within 24 hours of booking. This follows earlier consumer-protection measures such as a rule requiring airlines to let passengers off a plane after three hours on the tarmac or else face heavy fines.

All good news for beleaguered travelers. And yet one category of flyer is still getting the shaft this summer: the estimated 120 million U.S. travelers who are members of airline frequent-flyer programs. Flyers who want to redeem miles for free trips are finding it increasingly hard, and in some cases next to impossible, to do so — at least on the days they want to fly and at the typical award level (usually 25,000 miles) needed to earn a free domestic flight.

Frequent-flyer tickets, of course, are never quite free. They have become ever more loaded in recent years with added fees and restrictions, like the $50-to-$100 charge most airlines tack on for reservations made less than three weeks in advance. (Just what extra cost does an airline incur for booking a frequent-flyer ticket 20 days in advance vs. 21 days? An American Airlines spokeswoman said she'd get back to us.) Other perks of frequent-flyer travel — such as the ability to make a stop on one leg of a round trip (once allowed by American, but no more) and the freedom to change flight times without a fee — have steadily been taken away by most airlines.

But the biggest problem for frequent flyers is simply being able to use those reward miles. Unless you book months, or even a year, in advance, seats on the most popular routes and times are almost never available. Carriers typically set aside a few frequent-flyer seats on each flight (the airlines won't say how many, pointing out that it varies according to capacity); once they're gone, you're out of luck.

A study published in May by consulting firm IdeaWorks showed that for travel dates from June through October 2010, award seats aboard Continental were available 71.4% of the time, followed by United (68.6%), American (57.9%) and Delta (12.9%). Yet those figures seem to play down the problem — especially this summer, when airlines have cut flights in response to the recession even as traffic ratchets back up, leaving frequent flyers out in the cold.

TIME sought to make frequent-flyer reservations for a round trip from New York City to Los Angeles, one of the nation's most heavily traveled routes, with a half-dozen airlines offering nonstop flights, for any date in July or August. On American Airlines, not a single 25,000-mile-award round trip was available for the month of July. A few outbound seats were available in late August, but only a single return: Aug. 31.

Delta Airlines, too, had not a single frequent-flyer round trip available in July; for August, just one outbound flight was available and no return. Continental was only slightly better: no round trips in July, but a few in August, while United could get us out on one flight in July and had a few round trips left in August. Not according to your schedule, of course — but the airlines' timetable.

The airlines generally try to skirt questions about the availability of frequent-flyer seats. "It is very dependent upon the routes of travel," says Paul Skrbec, Delta's manager of corporate communications. "Some routes have more travelers, hence there would be less availability. Other routes have less travelers, hence there would be greater availability. It's very route-specific."

It would be fair to point out that no one forced airlines to offer frequent-flyer programs, and they have a right to set the rules. It's just that the rules have changed: now you need stepped-up award levels — usually 50,000 miles — to travel on nearly any date you're likely to want. Which means, in effect, that the airlines have quietly doubled the number of miles needed to redeem those frequent-flyer rewards, something close to a bait-and-switch marketing tactic.

"It's a little bit of a smoke-and-mirrors-type conversation," says Randy Petersen, publisher and editor of InsideFlyer magazine. "It's not that people can't use their awards. It's just that they won't want to pay the price of getting that award." Says George Hobica, founder of "[Airlines] are implying that you'll be able to spend the miles. And that's just not happening."

Some compare the situation to an inflationary monetary system: with the profusion of frequent-flyer deals, consumers can now earn mileage by signing up for credit cards, refinancing their homes, joining Netflix and more. Like paper money, the more miles that are "printed," the less value they seem to have. "Anecdotally, the seats are harder to use because [airlines have] cut capacity and are handing out frequent-flyer miles like hotcakes," says Hobica. Anyone can get a free ticket, making it harder for everyone to redeem them.

"Frankly, it's like playing the stock market," says Petersen. "Not every mutual fund gives the best performance. You have to accept their rules, or you can't play the game." Increasingly, the game seems stacked against the flyer.