Southwest to limit seats for frequent flier awards


DALLAS - Members of Southwest Airlines Co.'s frequent flier program will have twice as long to earn and redeem free tickets and will no longer have to worry about blackout dates, under changes announced yesterday.

But those free tickets may be harder to book. Starting Feb. 10, Southwest, the dominant carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, plans to limit the number of seats available for award travel on a given flight.

"We want to keep the program lucrative for members, but at the same time, keep Southwest profitable," said Debra Benton, the airline's director of loyalty marketing. "There will be a lot more people who are in the program who will now be able to earn tickets that couldn't before."

Dallas resident Bill Kennedy said Southwest will "have to make sure there's availability for award seats on every leg," adding that he often uses award tickets to take last-minute weekend trips to places like Santa Fe, N.M., or New Orleans.

Southwest said it hopes to add a "seat finder" tool to its Web site to make it easier for customers to shop for award seats.

Travel experts said Southwest's new seat restrictions more closely align the Dallas airline's award program to those offered by its peers.

"Southwest was the only airline that didn't have seat restrictions," said Randy Petersen, editor of Inside Flyer magazine. "It's hard to pick on them when it's the industry standard."

During 2003 and 2004, customers redeemed more than 5 million award tickets on Southwest, a figure officials said has been growing as the program adds members. Southwest has ended a long-running promotion that awarded bonus credits for booking travel online.

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