Southwest gets little LUV for new rewards program

March 10, 2011|By Michelle Deal-Zimmerman, The Baltimore Sun

Southwest, the carrier based on LUV, is suddenly getting a lot of hate. The airline can blame its new Rapid Rewards system for a lot of the discontent. The program launched 10 days ago on March 1 and it seems the uproar is only growing.

In a nutshell: few customers like the new frequent-flier awards. Several of them have taken to Facebook to express their outrage and disgust. One customer even called for a class-action lawsuit. There were several posters who agreed.

For Southwest, the largest airline serving BWI-Marshall Airport, it's like a public thrashing in the town square. But it doesn't end there. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that customers are jamming Southwest's phone lines with complaints - and probably questions, too - about the new program. I called today and waited 16 minutes, 24 seconds before customer service rep "Ginger" picked up the line. (Normally, I'd give up at around 10 minutes.)

The frustration should come as no surprise since Southwest has created something that requires a degree in calculus to compute. Well, I'm exaggerating, but it is more complex than I think most travelers want to endure. As such, I'm not going to try to explain it, you can read about it at newrapidrewards.com. Generally, points are now awarded based on how much you pay for a flight. The more dollars you pay the more points you get.

But really for loyal Southwest customers it goes beyond the new program. It's the busy signal when they try to call. It's the seeming inability to book using credits that were earned previously. The higher fares due to fuel increases. The addition of fees for things like unaccompanied minors - even though SWA famously doesn't charge for bags. It's the new layout of the website which was supposed to add clarity. The feeling that SWA is just slightly less fun and friendly than it used to be. It's everything.

And Southwest knows it has a burgeoning rebellion on its hands and has tried to tamp it down by saying change is never easy and it expected a bit of blowback. They've also apologized. Twice. As a Rapid Rewards member, I received this note via e-mail on March 5:

"Earlier this week we launched our new Rapid Rewards program. As with any change, we realize there may be some challenges and confusion. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience our program transition or technology may have caused and would like to take this opportunity to address some common questions. We've created a brief video overview of the new Rapid Rewards account on southwest.com as well as a list of frequently asked questions below. Again, we apologize for any confusion or inconvenience and hope that you find the resources below helpful."

So what do you think? Is Southwest doing enough to find some smooth air for its customers? Or is the airline in for a bumpy ride?

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