Friday, January 7, 2011

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Kerfuffle

Earlier this week, Southwest Airlines announced changes to their popular loyalty/frequent flyer program, Rapid Rewards.

Based on the comments on their Facebook thread, it appears people are PISSED.

Here's how it used to work: Fly a one-way segment--any segment, whether it's Tampa-Seattle or KC-St. Louis--earn one credit. Get 16 credits, earn a free flight.

In other words, any 8 round trips within a two-year window earned you a free flight to and from any Southwest destination. They had rental car and hotel partners too (1/2 credit per stay/rental).

Under the new system, you earn points based on how much you spend. Similarly, the points can be redeemed like cash toward flights. It's just like a hotel rewards program. The cheaper the flight, the fewer points you earn (and the fewer points it costs).

People are not happy.

Here's my list of reasons, followed by why I think their consternation is misplaced:

1. They don't understand the rules. 'Nuff said. Kneejerk anger for the sake of anger.

2. They think they've changed the rules to make it much more difficult to earn a flight. This is a little true, but not worthy of outrage. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, it now takes 10 roundtrip flights to earn an equivalent free flight (instead of 8). Note I said "equivalent". That means you can't shuttle from Tampa to Ft. Lauderdale 8 times, then earn a free round trip to Portland, OR. You shuttle 10 times, then get your 11th shuttle (or equivalent) free.

Plus, your points never expire under the new system. A lot more people will be able to eventually earn a free flight now.

And by the way - at one point, I was traveling 3+ times a month for work. Granted, most of that was on Southwest, but to this day I have NEVER earned a ticket on another carrier. I don't see how a leisure traveler ever could do so.

3. They think they've drawn up the point structure to benefit business travelers. So what? Leisure travelers fail to recognize this: if people didn't travel for business, air travel as you know it would not exist. Period. So spare them your resentment. Businesspeople, especially those who frequently have to pay through the nose for short-notice fares, subsidize that $89 seat you bought to Las Vegas. And while you associate the airport with fun places like Sin City, they associate it with yet another week of being away from their family while they visit a construction site in Birmingham, AL. They are the only reason there are so many flights available at those fares. Forgive Southwest if they're trying to build loyalty with those who spend the most.

Here's the real reason for the anger.

They think Southwest has sold out.

Southwest has traditionally served smaller, regional airports like Dallas Love Field instead of DFW, and destinations like Louisville, KY instead of Boston, MA. Well, guess what? They serve Boston directly now. They're back in San Francisco, and they have a presence at NY LaGuardia and Newark--all expensive places. They're not the little airline that could anymore. They're a huge carrier, and the most profitable by far of US airlines. As recently as 5 years ago, they were the closest thing to a "populist" airline as there was: no first class, no preferential treatment, no option to pay more and get more.

Not anymore.

You can pay extra for "Business Select", which gets you on the plane first to avoid the cattle call (and gets you a free drink and extra rewards points).

You can pay $10 extra to upgrade to the "A" group.

Rewards flights, which used to be valid as long as there was a seat available on the plane, can only be used on flights that are less than half-full at the time of booking. Also, I think people are pissed that they can't use $800 worth of cheapass roundtrips to earn a transcontinental flight, even though that policy was kinda ridiculous for Southwest to even offer. You can't stay 10 nights at a Motel 6 to earn a free night at the Four Seasons, for crissakes.

And their fares? Not really all that cheap anymore when you compare them to others.

Yes, bags still fly free. And yes, their people are more laid back/fun/friendly than those on your average legacy character.

But everyday people are pissed because they thought Southwest was THEIR airline, on THEIR side.

Nope. Things done changed.


The DLC said...

This is the first year I have ever flown Southwest, basically because their fares are not cheap at all. I've always done better elsewhere. I don't like the weird competitiveness of the group boarding either.

JJSKCK said...

The "cattle call" thing used to be worse, if you can believe it. Before online check-in, there was this strange dynamic starting about 30-45 minutes before boarding. Everyone would be sitting in their seats...until someone broke the seal and went to stand in the "A" line. Suddenly, dozens of people would spring out of their chairs to stand in their respective lines. Hilarious, sorta.

When their fares were consistently the best (often by large margins), it was worth the hassle. Now? My loyalty has waned somewhat, though their main advantage for me has always been the number of places I can fly nonstop from KC. They are by far the best at getting me places quickly for that reason, and I've spent enough damn time on airplanes.