Reactions to Southwest’s newly announced Rapid Rewards program have been decidedly mixed.
Within hours of the unveiling, the Internet was awash in comments. And for every thumbs-up, there was a countervailing note of no confidence.
Here’s a random sampling of comments from travelers and travel bloggers:
- “Noticed that you commented on the SWA Rapid Rewards program as outdated and needing to be updated. I think this comment was very narrow-minded and uninformed. I hope you take the time to review the hundreds of comments on SWA’s Facebook page and realize their program was the standard that all other program should have been trying to reach. Today’s announcement is a sad demonstration of change in a corporation for no good reason.” Bob Z. via email
- “The new program is much less exploitable than the old one. This also is intentional. It provides value that is much more closely linked to the value that you, the customer, provide to Southwest. Like it or not, you must agree that this is more fair.” nsx on FlyerTalk
- “As a 20 year loyal customer of Southwest, I cancelled my two Rapid Rewards credit cards and began booking Alaska Airlines instead after hearing about this fiasco. This is a terrible shift for Southwest’s flyers, especially if you travel on relatively short flights. Under the current system, you get to fly anywhwere in their system one way after eight flights of any length. This new system requires you to fly 10 times for a reward that only corresponds to your average ticket price.” AngryAtSWA on SmarterTravel
- “As with anything change brings winners and losers. The winners (besides the airline) are infrequent travelers such as my young children who will get better value from the program as their points won’t expire. Also people who normally buy high-fare tickets will see a better ROI. The losers include those who frequently fly short-haul routes on southwest’s lowest fares. But that was too good of a deal to last forever. The new program is a devaluation to these flyers, but probably a boon to everyone else. Despite the huge outcry, I predict many “angry” travelers will continue to fly southwest because overall the price will be generally be the lowest when you factor free checked luggage and no fees to cancel or change your ticket.” Boraxo on SmarterTravel
- “The new program is remarkably similar to that of San Francisco-based Virgin America and it’s part of a trend among all airlines to programs that are more based on how much members spend than how far they fly. Southwest’s new program also picked up a unique component from AirTran, which will allow members to “buy” tickets on other airlines to destinations not served by Southwest.” Chris McGinnis in The BAT
- “Overall, I like what they’ve done here. The earning and redeeming is very simple and sensible. The increased tiering of the program bugs me as someone who has been flying Southwest since Rapid Rewards was the Company Club, but I understand why they’re doing it. It’s all about catering to the top travelers, even though that’s historically a very un-Southwesty thing to do. The only thing I don’t like is the credit card requirement for non-Southwest redemption, but overall, they’ve done a really good job here.” Brett Snyder on The Cranky Flyer
- “In my experience the other low cost carriers view their frequent flyer programs as a tax rather than a profit center, something they’re obliged to offer because everyone else does and something they just want to keep as inexpensive to run as possible. Seems that Southwest has gone the same direction, squeeze out expense and benefits while pretending they’re offering a strong value proposition… It’s also far more complex than a straightforward mileage system that consumers already “get” and more complex than a credits system based on flights flown. How many customers can do the math without Excel? This program holds zero appeal for me.” Gary Leff on View From the Wing
- “Finally, an airline that awards frequent flier points based on the dollars you spend versus miles traveled. I never understood why a $200 flight across the country should be deemed by the airline as more deserving of rewards than an $800 flight on a short regional flight. After flying from DC to LA for two and a half years, I can’t say I ever complained though!” Jeff S. via email
Winners and Losers
Why the stunning divergence of opinion?
With earning rates keyed to both ticket prices and fare types, the new program is significantly more rewarding for travelers who fly on less restrictive, higher-priced fares (Business Select, Anytime) and redeem their points for low-priced Wanna Get Away tickets. That’s by design. And it’s both logical and fair, in my view. But for travelers who normally earn their points for cheaper, restricted tickets, the change will amount to a downgrade: They’ll have to fly more to earn a free ticket.
There are, in other words, winners and losers.
In addition to the change in the underlying value proposition, there’s a disconcerting shift away from Southwest’s legendary egalitarianism, in which all customers are treated equally. The airline’s increasing focus on the business-travel market has required a more differentiated approach, with special perks on offer to travelers willing and able to pay a premium for Anytime and Business Select fares.
The new Rapid Rewards program solidifies that transition to a class-based approach to pricing and services, and the elitism implicit in the new scheme is odious to some.
Also jarring to longtime Rapid Rewards partisans is the loss of the current program’s refreshing simplicity. The straightforward value proposition—Fly 16 times to earn a free ticket—will be replaced with a system that literally requires a calculator to manage.
Change is hard, especially if the benefits are questionable.
Southwest’s Big Bet
Southwest expects the new program to generate an extra several hundred million dollars in annual revenue, partly from more ticket sales to more Rapid Rewards customers.
That means it’s betting there will be more converts to the new Rapid Rewards than there will be naysayers.
It will be a year or more before that can be reality-checked. My bet, though, is that Rapid Rewards 2.0 will pay off big for Southwest.
Reader Reality Check
What’s your bet?
Is the new program a winner or a loser?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.
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