Southwest Learns the Dangers of Unbridled Enthusiasm With Its Frequent Flier Relaunch

Last Updated Jan 10, 2011 5:58 PM EST

When Southwest (LUV) relaunched its Rapid Rewards frequent flier program last week, the airline was so excited that it even included an exclamation point in its press release title. Though Southwest was giddy, not all of its customers felt the same way. In fact, some of the airline's most loyal customers view the move as a significant downgrade.

Southwest would be wise to admit that its changes aren't going to be great for everyone; failing to do so will just make things worse.

Rapid Rewards has always been a very simple program where fliers earn a single credit for a single flight and then redeem a certain number of credits for any round-trip in the airline system. There have been some tweaks over the years, but in essence the program has stayed the same even as the airline has grown and changed.

Southwest's new program is dollar-based, so it really is comparing apples and oranges on a high level. But each person can find the individual impact easily, and not every traveler will be happy with what he finds.

There are some new benefits here that some people will like, and the program is better in many ways, so Southwest should be excited. As an airline, you want to encourage the most profitable behavior, and this does exactly that.

The response from the public, however, has been mixed at best.

It's a really big change for people to get used to from an airline that's always prided itself on egalitarianism and simplicity. When I wrote about this on, the reaction was largely negative. For example:

Honestly, I've been a SW fan for years, but this really makes it hard to justify having the Chase card and dealing with the cattle cars. I'm switching to Virgin where they have Wi-Fi as a fleet-wide standard and much more comfortable seating. Sorry, SW, it's been great.
Most of the unhappiness comes from people who primarily travel on short haul flights and see the most devaluation. This was a typical thought:
Bottom line, what I used to get for $120 is now going to cost $400. How is that better?
Those kinds of reactions are fully expected, especially with such a large change. While I think many people can understand why Southwest is doing this, the way the airline has described its new approach appears to be fueling quite a bit of anger. The airline knows that the new frequent-flier program isn't going to be perfect for everyone, but it's trying to spin the program as the greatest thing since sliced bread.

The airline's blog post announcing the new program, for instance, deployed sentences such as, "And that is exactly what the All-New Rapid Rewards program is all about--meeting your needs and the needs of today's traveler." This kind of corporate-speak sounds vaguely positive, but there's no acknowledgment that any downside even exists.

Southwest launched this program with the press release, a blog post, a radio interview on its Red Belly Radio and an embargoed briefing for much of the press so they could digest all of the changes. It was a big production, but nowhere does the company even acknowledge that some folks are going to come up losers in the new system.

The day after launch, I was encouraged to see that there was a new blog post addressing the fact that not everyone was happy. But instead of admitting the truth, it made excuses. Instead of admitting people wouldn't all be happy, it pushed back and said customers just don't understand. Maybe not the best tactic:

Rest assured, the new Rapid Rewards program is based on what our Customers have been asking us to change over the years, and it was very carefully designed by and responsive to an extensive set of Customer research and feedback from our Members. With more understanding of the benefits of the new program, we feel that our Customers will ultimately agree that the changes make the program better.
Southwest should acknowledge that not everyone will be happy with this and that's just the way it has to be. Telling people that they're mistaken and actually will like it when they understand it better is not helpful. Admitting that this is the right thing to do for the airline but that means that not everyone will be pleased is the right tactic.

Southwest should reach out to those travelers who fly primarily shorter flights and focus on them since they see the most pain. An open and honest dialog could go a long way here, but I'm not seeing it.

Photo via Flickr user randomduck/CC 2.0