Las Vegas Sun

July 27, 2014

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Tourism column:

Loyal Southwest Airlines customers say airline blew it

Image

Sam Morris

A Southwest Airlines plane flies over Las Vegas.

Loyal Southwest Airlines customers who learned of the enhancements the company is making to its popular Rapid Rewards loyalty card program last week are sounding off: “Southwest, what have you done?!?”

Although Southwest won’t say how many Rapid Rewards members live in Southern Nevada, it stands to reason that there are thousands of them since the airline flies more than 40 percent of the flights in and out of McCarran International Airport.

Airline officials said they’re converting the Rapid Rewards program to a points-based system with accrual based on the amount of money a customer spends for a ticket.

In the past, Southwest Rapid Rewards was a model of simplicity — buy 16 one-way ticket segments (eight round trips) and you get a free round-trip ticket.

The upside of the changes that begin March 1 are pretty good. Points accrued by customers never expire (in the past, a frequent flier had to collect the 16 one-way ticket segments for the freebie within a 24-month period or they would begin to disappear.)

In addition, there’s a no-blackout policy. Any available seat on any flight would be available for purchase with points.

Under the new system, customers will accrue points whenever they buy a ticket on the airline’s website with higher multiples for higher levels of Southwest’s three-tiered pricing. For the airline’s “Want to Get Away” fares — the least expensive tickets Southwest sells — customers will earn six points for every dollar spent on a fare.

For the second-tier “Anytime” tickets, customers earn 10 points per dollar spent. For the highest priced “Business Select” level, customers will get 12 points per dollar spent.

When redeeming points for flights, 60 points equal a dollar, so a $100 fare would cost 6,000 points.

In the news story I wrote after the announcement, I explained why many loyal Southwest customers aren’t going to be happy with the new program, citing an example of what many of Southwest’s Southern Nevada customers do — buy cheap fares between Reno and Las Vegas, then cash the rewards in for free cross-country flights.

But now, customers will find their points won’t take them as far.

When I wrote that story, it cost $149 for a round-trip flight to Reno on a “Want to Get Away” fare. Under the current system, that would earn two credits — one-eighth of the way toward earning a free round-trip flight. Under the new system, that ticket would earn 894 points. After eight round trips to Reno, a customer would accrue 14,304 points.

But the cost of buying a ticket from Las Vegas to Orlando, Fla., for example, would be $343 for a “Want to Get Away” ticket. At the redemption rate of 60 points per dollar, it would take 20,580 points to buy that Orlando ticket.

That means it would take 23 one-way trips between Las Vegas and Reno instead of 16 to get a ticket to fly to Orlando.

Since I wrote the story, the price of a Las Vegas-Reno ticket has jumped. As of this writing, the least expensive “Want to Get Away” fare ballooned to $189 for a round trip.

It’s painfully obvious what Southwest is doing: trying to upswell customers.

If customers buy a “Want to Get Away” Reno ticket for $189, they bank 1,134 points. Buying the “Anytime” fare would cost $333 and because of the 10-times multiple, would earn 3,330 points. Jump into the highest-priced “Business Select” fare and you’d pay $363 and earn a 12-times-multiple 4,356 points.

Several people weighed in on my story posted on LasVegasSun.com and almost every comment was negative. It was the same on a blog posting of the Dallas Morning News, Southwest’s headquarters city.

Give Southwest credit for allowing customers to sound off on its own blog site, “Nuts About Southwest.” But the comments weren’t any friendlier there.

A few customers checked in with some other examples of why they were unhappy.

For example, in the transition from the credit system to the points system, Southwest announced that it’s converting each credit to 1,200 points. One customer complained that she paid $830 apiece for her husband and her to fly between Long Island, N.Y., and Ontario, Calif., last month. She’ll get 1,200 in converted points — but now, such a ticket should earn 6,840 points.

Other customers complained that they’ve lost value on securing last-minute tickets under the new system. Under the old system, it was possible to get a last-minute free ticket, although Southwest limited the inventory making them unavailable on some flights. A relatively new policy allowed customers to redeem two award coupons for a “Freedom” ticket that had a broadened inventory.

But under the new system, a customer has to pay the normal ticket price at a rate of 60 points to the dollar and the normal ticket price on last-minute purchases requires payment for the highest-priced tickets.

A common theme of the blog posts was Southwest has changed the rules and I don’t want to play by those rules anymore.

They also ripped Southwest for a condescending attitude in a “Rapid Rewards Followup” posting by a Southwest employee.

“Wow. You STILL don’t get it,” an angry blogger wrote in response to the follow-up posting. “You seem to think that we’re upset because we’re confused, we just don’t understand you, you didn’t explain it well enough ...

“Cut the patronizing noise, Southwest. We do understand. We, your loyal customers for many years now, are not stupid.”

Another writer pleaded with Southwest to heed what another big corporation did when it made a mistake.

“Face it YOU BLEW IT!” the post said.

“Just a suggestion ... when Coca Cola blew it with ‘New Coke’ they wisely went back to their old recipe ... a lesson Southwest better learn from.”

Will Southwest retreat? Probably not, but who knows what would happen if the public backlash is loud enough.

Executives said the airline spent $100 million to enhance the Rapid Rewards program. Throwing that kind of investment away isn’t something you’ll see Southwest do very often.

Allegiant union

It’s going to take some time for Allegiant Air’s new flight attendant union to get off the ground, union and airline representatives have agreed.

At the end of last month, flight attendants voted 220-137 to be represented by the Transport Workers Union, the first employee group at the Las Vegas-based airline to formally seek representation.

National leadership for the union has scheduled a meeting in Las Vegas in early February and another union vote is under way at Allegiant.

When union leaders arrive for a meeting at the Mirage, it will be the first opportunity for flight attendants to start talking about governance and local leadership. Once that occurs, the group will begin discussions about contract issues.

Meanwhile, a small employee group, 13 flight dispatchers, is scheduled to complete its union vote by Jan. 24.

SuiteLinq

Exton, Pa.-based SuiteLinq Inc., a digital communications and entertainment system provider serving the hospitality industry, has opened a sales office in Las Vegas.

The company is partnering with Microsoft at the LINQ360 Innovation Center with a one-stop shopping site and showroom where it can demonstrate products in a simulated hotel environment.

“For us, it’s a great opportunity to be more accessible to this important market and present alongside many other industry leaders,” SuiteLinq President Craig Ziegler said.

The Las Vegas office is at 9555 Hillwood Drive, just off Summerlin Parkway at Town Center Drive.

Kingman adopts Skywalk

The Hualapai Indian Tribe’s Skywalk attraction at Grand Canyon West has been adopted by Kingman, Ariz., in a promotional tagline.

The city about 100 miles south of Las Vegas on U.S. 93 says it’s on “America’s Route to Grand Canyon West, Home of the Skywalk.”

Thousands of tourists visiting the Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped glass platform extending from the canyon rim at Grand Canyon West, get there by bus, helicopter or plane from Las Vegas or Boulder City.

Grand Canyon West promoters say a third-quarter 2010 survey conducted by the Arizona tourism office showed that 42.6 percent of visitors traveling through Kingman named the Grand Canyon West area as their primary destination.

Peach Springs, Ariz., headquarters of the Hualapai Tribe, shares a historic kinship with Kingman. Both lie on historic Route 66, one of the main east-west highways between Los Angeles and Chicago before the days of the interstate highway system.

American off Orbitz, Expedia

American Airlines is trying to persuade Internet travel websites to sell its tickets through a system it invented, AA Direct Connect.

But that didn’t sit well with Orbitz.com and Expedia.com, which have expelled American from their websites.

Customers who shop for tickets on Orbitz and Expedia won’t find any American flights next to rivals United, Continental, JetBlue, Virgin America and Alaska. Travelocity hasn’t banned American — yet.

Since being removed from Orbitz and Expedia last month, American says it has actually sold more tickets, via Priceline, Kayak and its own website.

Travel website representatives say the American Direct Connect product is anti-consumer because it makes it more difficult for customers to compare prices between it and its rivals.

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  1. Dennis

    I couldn't agree more most of those reward programs are deceptive anyway they look to see how much the members have banked and then they calculate that a change must happen or they will have to honor their promise.

    I don't think the program actually sold tickets I think people purchased tickets because they thought they would get something extra.

    Southwest should return to the no frills mantra they built on and stick with it.

    Me personally I didn't participate in the program before it changed and I won't now, However I think the rate increase is a result of the program costing them money and they are passing it on to the others which spell a cycle of more of the same to come.

  2. For $100 million they could have given 333,333 of us $300 round trip tickets. go figure.

  3. Southwest made a big mistake a couple of years ago when in a few locations it went to the stupid assigned seating system that other airlines have. It quickly realized the mistake and changed back, and in fact improved to the excellent system now in place.

    I believe Southwest's management will quickly see the mistake it has made and revert to the previous system. I hope so.

  4. I think the new system is very fair. Southwest was probably losing money with the cheap ticket people. It can change how it rewards people or raise their prices.

  5. Doesn't matter to me,...I'm still going Southwest whenever I fly!

  6. Just wondering how many who are griping about the new SWA point system will take their business to a more expensive airline??

    I'm thinking not many. Especially once the new cities come on line with the longer haul planes...

    People just want something for nothing...