U.S. airline passengers generally prefer easy-to-understand loyalty programs, even though they tend to offer fewer perks and may require more points for redemptions than more complicated schemes from global legacy airlines, according to a new survey from J.D. Power, the rankings agency.

It found passengers prefer the loyalty program from JetBlue Airways, giving the airline 800 points on a 1,000 point scale. Close behind were Alaska Airlines (796) and Southwest Airlines (793), while the three largest U.S. carriers, Delta Air Lines (766), American Airlines (729), and United Airlines (727), performed the worst.

Smaller airlines, including Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines, were not ranked, but offer subpar loyalty programs.

J.D. Power said it questioned nearly 3,400 travelers in September, querying them based on four factors, including ease of earning and redeeming, program benefits, and the quality of communications with members.

The results are surprising. Sophisticated frequent flyers rarely give high marks to JetBlue, which has only one elite frequent flyer tier, rather than the three or four offered by other airlines. Redemptions for free tickets on JetBlue can also be more expensive than on other airlines since they’re directly tied to a ticket’s price, rather than a set price, such as 12,500 miles. And JetBlue has relatively few airline partners.

But its program, like Southwest’s, is fairly simple. Customers earn points based on how much they spend, and then can redeem them for any flight. There are no blackout dates, and every seat for sale is available for program members. Family members can also pool miles, making it easier to rack up a big balance.

“JetBlue has a regional and simple program but doesn’t offer much of an opportunity beyond simple rebates,” Gary Leff, who writes the blog ViewFromTheWing, said in an email. “Their program is closer to a punch card than offering travel dreams to members and is likely to appeal most to customers based in New York, Boston, and South Florida.”

J.D. Power said little about its methodology, and declined to share more detailed information about its questions, or how it conducted the survey. But Leff said he was surprised it placed so much emphasis on “member communication,” as that’s generally not a major concern for frequent flyers.

Still, Michael Taylor, travel practice lead at J.D. Power, said in an interview that effective programs must communicate with members so consumers understand the value proposition.

“Lack of understanding is probably one of the key problems with these airline programs,” he said, adding that Delta, which no longer publishes an award chart, has made its program more complex in recent years, though savvy travelers still know the sweet spots.

Overall, Taylor said, consumers are pleased with the U.S. loyalty programs. “These are good scores,” he said. “People are relatively happy.”

Among the three highest scorers, Alaska tends to earn highest rankings from frequent flyers intent on maximizing value, Leff said. Alaska is the only major airline program that still awards miles based on how far passengers fly so travelers generate thousands of miles on cheap tickets. Alaska also has many international partner airlines and still offers relatively good value for some premium class redemptions on long-haul airlines. If purchased with cash, those tickets might cost $2,000 or more.

Super travelers also still like programs from American, Delta and United, even if they’re difficult to understand, and not as generous as five or 10 years ago. But they’re potentially lucrative for elite frequent flyers who know how to book valuable premium awards.

For free flights, Southwest and JetBlue programs have limited utility. They’re usually best for coach flights within North America and the Caribbean. And while it is relatively easy for passengers to redeem on both airlines, the tickets they’re getting for free might only cost a few hundred dollars if purchased with cash.

 study highlights

  • The average overall satisfaction score among airline members with elite status is 814. The average score is 744 among general members.
  • Only 52 percent of program members say they fully understand the redemption process.
  • Waiving fees for same-day flight changes based on loyalty status adds 104 points to overall customer satisfaction.
  • When customers receive extra points or bonus rewards miles, satisfaction increases by 52 points
  • Overall satisfaction with an airline increases by 77 points when airline loyalty members earn rewards in restaurants.
Photo Credit: JetBlue's loyalty program is not as generous as some offered by other airlines. But it is easy to understand, and customers can earn points through credit card spending. JetBlue Airways