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Southwest alters Rapid Rewards’ flight path

Southwest’s KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach has served it well, keeping the carrier profitable when other airlines were in or on the verge of bankruptcy, and making it the largest U.S. airline in terms of passenger traffic. The airline has understandably, and probably wisely, been reluctant to stray too far from a formula that’s proven so successful over so many years.

So when the Mother of All Discounters makes changes to its loyalty program, you can fairly assume that it was only after prolonged deliberation. What that deliberation hath wrought is the following two changes to the Rapid Rewards program.

Effective today, Rapid Rewards Members who have flown 32 one-way flights or 16 round-trips in 12 months will be awarded A-List status, which entitles them to be automatically checked in for Southwest flights in advance, thereby standing a good chance of receiving an “A” boarding pass and being among the first to board. In other words, Southwest is giving its best customers priority boarding privileges.

Secondly, Southwest has introduced an unrestricted award, allowing Rapid Rewards members to redeem their points “free of seat restrictions except for a few blackout dates around major holidays.” So it’s a rule-buster award, except that blackout dates still apply.

Naturally, such flexibility doesn’t come free. The so-called Freedom Award costs two Standard Awards.

The verdict on the changes?

The A-List is Southwest’s version of other carriers’ elite status. But the benefit, priority boarding, is hardly comparable to legacy carriers’ elite upgrades, which Southwest obviously isn’t in a position to provide. As with upgrades, the real value of priority boarding will depend on its availability. And that remains to be seen since A-List travelers will be competing for the limited number of “A” boarding positions with non-A-List passengers.

While the Freedom Award is a step forward, it’s only a single step forward and it comes after taking two steps back. As many program members know, all Rapid Rewards awards were once as unrestricted as Freedom Awards, before Southwest imposed capacity controls. And they were available at half the price of Freedom Awards. And most other airlines’ rule-buster awards are truly unrestricted —i.e. there are no blackout dates at all.

Overall, the changes are what you might expect from a company reluctant to stray too far from past practice, with predictable results: Not much ventured, not much gained.

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