Saturday, March 5, 2011

Another One Bites The Dust

Southwest Bags Its Old Rapid Rewards Program

Southwest Airlines always pioneered ways to make flying simple. That was why we loved them.

For a short flight, you just showed up and got a boarding card. Seating was festival and in the middle and back of the plane there were party seats that faced each other making it easy to strike up conversations. It was all part of the charm of the LUV airline.

Every flight no matter how long or short, and no matter what you paid, awarded you a flight segment. Once you got the requisite segments you got a free round trip anywhere Southwest flew. About the only restriction was that you had a year to collect segments and once an award was earned you had a year to use it. I can't tell you how many awards I have used over the years and how many I lost because I could not use them or (shame on me) forgot about them in the time allowed.

I loved the program because it was so simple. The only other perk was a biggie. If you flew a hundred segments you could designate someone to fly with you absolutely free anytime you flew for a whole year. And I mean free, they even paid the tax. 

Over the past few years Southwest has spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to improve the bottom line. And part of the strategy included a lot of tinkering with those segments. If you paid more they awarded added fractional portions of segments.

Then they started limited award seats. I had one short flight where I wanted to use my rewards to take my family to Las Vegas. I was able to get three reward seats at one award each. But then when I tried to get the last ticket for my son they were out of the reward seats. I was told I'd need to "double up" and use two rewards to get that last free ticket.

I realized the old Southwest was gone.

Today I took the tutorial on their "new" Rapid Rewards program.

Good bye segments, hello "Points". Gee whiz the "points" sure do look a lot like the "Miles" on every other airline's frequent flier program. But, you do get more points for paying a higher fare.

Now the number of points needed for a free flight varies by the fare you choose. Your old segments are being converted to points.

At least for now there are some nice features.

No blackouts.

And, if a cheap fare exists, the points you need for a free flight require fewer points.


The opposite is also now true. Unlike the old system where you could opt to use an award for a last minute flight that otherwise would have been very expensive, now if you need to use points for a last minute flight, you will bleed points through the nose to do it.

Southwest still has a lot going for it. Lots of flights. The nicest staff in the industry from their call centers to their cabin crews. No baggage fees. A wonderfully forgiving flight change policy. New and very clean planes and the best safety record in the sky!

But lately, they have also featured the most expensive fares for many of the routes I priced. So the days of just going to Southwest's site and booking a flight with full confidence that it would be the best fare for any route I needed to fly are long gone.

Southwest's on time status seems to be suffering too. My last Southwest flight (a couple of weeks ago from Seattle to Phoenix) left more than four hours late. It got me home at the hideous hour of 3 AM. When I inquired why all the Southwest flights were so late, all they could tell me was "the equipment is not taking off on time". I kind of had that figured out all by myself.

In the last couple of weeks Southwest has also suffered from endless computer snafu's.

I just worry that, as their route map expands, and their fares go up, they will just slowly morph into another low quality domestic airline.

Kind of reminds me of McDonalds. 

For anyone as old as Roadboy, we all remember when McDonalds were all fastidiously clean, the food was hot, the prices were low, and the service was unfailingly friendly anywhere you went. Every store fresh-cut their fries and they all used fresh meat. No microwave ovens were to be seen.

Now McDonalds are mostly dirty, their restrooms are broken, the food is cold, the prices are high, and the service is slow anywhere you go. All stores use frozen fries from a bag and stacks of frozen meat. Most every product sees the inside of a microwave.

Southwest, please, there is still time. Don't become the McDonalds of the sky.

Love Roadboy.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

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