Southwest Rapid Rewards A No-Fly Zone

Oct 31, 2011

Southwest Airlines has made its reputation on being different than the legacy carriers, even some of its low-cost competition. Not only do they have generally happy flight crew who turn the pre-flight safety announcements into mini-skits, but they have refrained from charging for the first carry-on bag and do not have change fees. Employee ownership is given some of the credit, but a conscious approach to the in-flight experience and customer centric marketing is also in their corner.

Based on the latest statistics from the American Customer Satisfaction Index, Southwest came out on top of all reported airlines, leading with a score of 81, better than Continental at 64 and Delta, which brought up the rear at 56. The “all airline” score was 65, so SWA is clearly a cut above the competition in an industry that takes heavy criticism on a regular basis.

But could these satisfaction scores be more perception than reality? Could the love affair with Southwest be coming to an end? In my book, I’d have to say “absolutely yes”.

Fortunately Southwest has not stranded people on the tarmac for hours on end like JetBlue did this weekend. This is the second time this disaster has taken place on a JetBlue flight, the first time in 2007. Interestingly, the way JetBlue responded publicly to the first incident has garnered them placement in many conference presentations as best in class for customer communications. With the second event just yesterday, it might be a little harder to repair the damage.

Back to Southwest: I don’t know if SWA has a great customer service reputation because it actually has great service, or if it is just consistently better than the competition. Even if that consistency means an average and unspectacular customer experience, in an industry that continually struggles with this issue, the perception that it is better than the rest tells much about what consumers will settle for.

My frustration relates to SWA’s Rapid Rewards program. The restructuring of the program earlier this year won accolades across the industry, but an ugly reality is settling in: even though the marketing messages clearly indicate that any seat on any flight is available for frequent flyer program rewards redemption, my experience is quite different.

The following is an excerpt from an email I submitted a few days ago to SWA Customer Service:

SWA is failing terribly in its marketing and treatment of customers. This is the second time I have tried to book a flight with the use of my Rapid Rewards earnings. The first time, your flight options were extremely limited. This time, there are no options for any of the days I want to travel.

As I entered my preferred travel dates, the header at the top of the page read, “Feel rewarded with Southwest Airlines. Book your flight below.” Yet there were no options available to me.

On a recent flight I noticed the Rapid Rewards ad in your in-flight magazine with the headline, “Join the program with the best reward seat availability of any U.S. carrier.*” The image shows the multitude of seats available on SWA, as compared to the average carrier. You even go on to state, “…there is nothing to get in the way of your next vacation. That’s because rapid rewards has unlimited seats, no blackout dates, and points that don’t expire.** Let us show you how easy it is to redeem…” Wow! What a sham!

SWA is no different than any other airline. I guess you can claim “you’re no worse.” However, you certainly aren’t any better either. Your marketing message and value proposition is misleading, and I feel like an idiot that I ever believed in SWA. I will find another option.

By the by, I wrote a similar message about 2 months ago and no one from your organization ever followed up with me. I guess I should have taken that clue as a hammer to the head.

End of email.

There is conflicting information online that shows SWA offering the highest availability of rewards seats and also a growing level of complaints by people with experiences similar to mine.

I will keep you informed if I get any response from the airline or if there is any resolution. And in case you’re wondering, the flights I wanted to book are available for purchase at less that $200 per leg, so it’s not as if the flights are sold out.

More than anything, as a guy who lives in the Marketing world, assists organizations with the positioning of their value proposition, and focuses on the delivery of the customer experience – I guess I feel duped and naïve. I hope you won’t think less of my admission of vulnerability in a space that I consider myself to be an expert.

Rating: 0 out of 10 Custpies.