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Reader response: ‘Southwest bites its best customers’

Last week, Southwest announced changes to its Rapid Rewards program, extending credit expiration from 12 to 24 months, eliminating blackout dates, and adding seat restrictions. We viewed Southwest’s move as “two steps forward and one giant leap backward in user-friendliness,” but many readers and industry experts also had something to say on the subject. We’ve put together their responses, along with some tips to help you maximize your award travel with Southwest’s new policies.

“Bad move by Southwest”

The majority of readers who responded to our story were dismayed by Southwest’s news. Thomas from Washington, D.C., mourns the loss of unrestricted award seats. “That was the best feature of the program,” he says. “That is what really distinguished it from the other ‘bait-and-switch’ frequent flyer programs.”

Other readers are also concerned that Southwest’s award program is becoming more like the legacy carriers’ and that award tickets will become harder and harder to come by. “Now I and my wife will earn tickets at the same rate (a couple per year) but have to worry about having enough available seats to accommodate our family on a given flight when we redeem them,” writes Fred K. in an email entitled “Southwest bites its best customers.” Several readers claim that when they have a choice between airlines, they will no longer prioritize Southwest.

Frequent flyer expert Tim Winship gives the industry perspective. “Certainly, extending credit expiration from one year to two is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But when you compare Southwest’s new policy with the prevailing policy of the mainline carriers, Southwest remains an outlier.” Southwest’s credits will still expire, while most major airlines don’t expire miles unless three years have gone by with no mileage activity. And, as these airlines have more robust partners and route maps, they have the potential to offer more valuable and accessible awards than Southwest.

Winship also agrees that adding capacity controls was a bad idea. Southwest’s original lack of seat restrictions “was the crown jewel of their program, something worth crowing about,” he says. “Getting rid of that totally offsets the small gain associated with extending credit expiration. The net effect from a consumer standpoint is no change. Or maybe the program has actually gotten worse.”

“Better than any other airline”

Despite the griping and fears, many Southwest customers are loyal to the core. One reader told us bluntly that we had a case of the sour grapes for saying anything negative about the new policies and that Southwest is the best airline around. Another wrote in to counsel reason, saying not to assume that Southwest will become stingy with award seats just because its policies are now closer to that of other airlines.

Karen Wright, manager of loyalty marketing at Southwest, explains her company’s decision: “We’ve done research over the past year [to evaluate the Rapid Rewards program from a competitive standpoint and a good-value proposition]. People wanted more time to earn awards, and blackout dates were really unpopular.” In order to give customers what they wanted, Southwest had to ensure that the loyalty program continued to be profitable for the airline. “It was necessary to implement seat restrictions to remain in a profitable position,” she says.

The best thing about these changes, Wright believes, is that more Southwest flyers will be able to earn awards. Infrequent flyers whose credits expired before they had earned enough for a free flight now have a chance to get the necessary credits for an award.

“The reality is that it will be more difficult to get a nonstop flight Friday at 5 p.m.,” Wright says. “But if people can go at 2 p.m. or in the morning or in the late evening then they will be able to get where they want to go [on an award ticket].” Certain flights will continue to have availability at the last minute, but that will depend on seasonality, day of the week, and time of day. And, as seat restrictions won’t begin until February, Rapid Rewards members should reserve judgment until they see how easy or difficult it is to get an award seat. Wright sums it up: “It’s a wait and see game.”

Steps you can take

We can’t give specific advice until all of the new policies take full effect in February. Until then, here are some steps you can take to maximize your return from Southwest’s changes:

  • Fly now: The capacity controls will take effect with award tickets issued on or after February 10, 2006. To delay the impact of this policy, you should try to earn your award before then. If you’ll be a few credits short in February, you might want to take advantage of one of Southwest’s many sales and book an extra flight or two in 2005. Alternately, if you want to fly on a date that is currently blacked out, try not to earn your award until after February 10.
  • Be flexible: With the new seat restrictions, certain flights may have few or no award seats available, but that does not mean that awards will become useless. If you can be flexible about your travel dates or times, you’ll be more likely to find an empty seat waiting for you.
  • Express yourself: If you have feedback about Southwest’s policies, whether positive or negative, let the airline know. You can send your comments to Herb Kelleher, executive chairman of the board; Gary Kelly, CEO; or Colleen Barrett, president, at P.O. Box 36611, 2702 Love Field Drive, Dallas, TX 75235. Or, you can call the Rapid Rewards customer service department at 800-445-5764. Southwest does not accept customer-service related e-mails.

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