Good news for business travelers - a recent study found that airline frequent flier reward programs are getting better and that reward seat availability is on the rise.

In March 2012, IdeaWorks Company queried the top 10 short- and long-haul routes on 23 airlines’ frequent flier program websites for travel between June and October 2012 to gauge availability of award seats. Requirements were a minimum of two tickets booked together and no overly circuitous routes or layovers topping 4 hours.

Surprisingly (or not), discount airlines offered the best availability - Southwest and AirBerlin tied for first place with 100% reward seat availability.

Here are some other reward program insights frequent fliers won’t want to miss:

Trending positive. Overall reward seat availability is trending up, great news for road warriors. In 2010, only 5 airlines had 80% availability or better, this year 9 airlines made the cut. Those with the biggest increase in reward seat availability since last year are AirTran and United Airlines tied at 87.1% and British Airways at 79.3%.

Customer friendlier. Since business travelers don’t often book far in advance, by the time they purchase tickets there aren’t any reward seats left. Airlines are becoming more responsive to customer timing by making reward seats available closer to departure dates - when booking 5 to 15 days in advance, United boasted 87.1% availability, American had 65% and U.S. Airways had 42.5%, all increased from last year. Delta’s short advance booking reward seat availability took a nosedive this year to only 25%, no doubt frustrating their loyal customers.

Points v.s. miles. The study found that reward programs using points offered much more value for frequent fliers than those that are miles-based. For business travelers in miles-based reward programs that are making short-haul trips, it will take quite a long time to build up enough miles to redeem new airline tickets or other merchandise. Those in points-based programs can rack up rewards quickly since business travel flights are more expensive and points are tied to dollars spent, not miles flown. 

Perhaps the best news is that airlines listened to their most loyal customers when they complained of poor award seat availability, and are actually using that feedback to improve customer service and frequent flier program offerings. Since the survey began three years ago, reward seat availability has continued to improve : in 2010 airlines only averaged 65.8% availability, in 2011 it was 68.6% and this year was 70.9%.