Today was a big day for Southwest Airlines as they rolled out a bunch of changes to the core parts of their business. I’ll get into each one of them, but overall I like what they’ve done. No point in getting into details overall, so let’s dive right in.
They made five big changes today. Two of them, the new boarding process and the redesigned gate areas, were already announced before so I won’t get into details. They are, however, rolling out the new boarding today everywhere. (I’m actually flying them this morning to Vegas, so I will let you know how it goes.)
The other three changes were the details we’ve been waiting for regarding their long-awaited attempt to woo the business traveler. You can read about them on their website, in their blog, or in their press release. But I’d recommend just reading my summary below and then visiting the website for the best information.
Simplified Fare Choices and Business Select
Let’s start with the ones that will likely impact the largest number of people, the new “Simplified Fare Choices” and “Business Select” options. If you’ve ever flown Southwest, you probably recognize this image:
This is the standard Southwest fare interface on their website. They have the “Refundable Anytime” fare (also known as the YL for fare basis junkies). Then everything else to the right has a variety of advance purchases and limits on availability. You can see how each flight stands in terms of availability. Now, here’s the new interface:
Pretty spartan, huh?
Now, “Refundable Anytime” becomes “Business.” It’s still refundable and changeable and all that good stuff, but it will no longer be the highest fare. That is reserved for the new “Business Select” fare which will be a bit higher (not sure exactly what that means yet). The difference here is that you’ll get a free drink (big deal), an automatic A boarding pass (that really IS a big deal), and more frequent flier credit (a nice bonus). While other fares get 1 credit per flight, these customers will get 1.25 for a flight under 750 miles and 2 for a flight over 750 miles. If it is truly a $10 to $30 bump, I’d say it’s worth it.
That’s a good way to get more revenue out of their passengers while still providing a good value. I like it, even if the name is lame.
But then we have the other end of the spectrum. Now, all those fare classes that were separated out will be bundled up into one “Wanna Get Away” fare class. It’s not that those fares are going away, they’re just becoming more opaque, more like a legacy airline display. This category will show you the lowest fare available in that class. But what if I’m right at 14 days in advance and want to know what it will be if I wait a day? Sorry, no dice. You can’t find it out, I’d assume. I’ll know for sure once I can test it out live.
This is the one thing they’ve done that I really don’t like. It makes the booking process more opaque and that’s not a good thing. It’s not like they’re making their fare structure less complicated. They’re just showing you less of it. It’s like they say on their website, “We’ve done the shopping for you. . . .” But I don’t want them to do the shopping for me. I want to see all my options.
Rapid Rewards Changes
The last piece of the puzzle here involves changes to the Rapid Rewards program. Most interesting is the creation of the new A-List. If you fly 32 flights in a 12 month period (and yes, you have to fly each one, no double credits or anything like that), then you will automatically get an A boarding pass on every flight during the next 12 months, even if it’s on a Rapid Rewards free ticket. They’ve basically created an elite level for their frequent flier program. In theory I like it, but on heavy business travel routes, it’s possible that there could be so many A-Listers (or people buying Business Select) that even someone who checks in 24 hours in advance could end up with a B boarding pass. That would be a bummer, but I guess you get what you pay for.
The other change to the program is the addition of Freedom Awards. You may remember that before recent times, each free ticket could be used for any seat on any flight except on a handful of blackout dates around peak holiday times. Then they changed the program to be more like those of other airlines. The blackout dates went away, but you couldn’t use the awards for every seat anymore. They became capacity-controlled.
Well, now the (mostly) unrestricted award is back as the Freedom Award. The difference is that it costs you twice as much as it did in the good old days. Now you can convert two standard awards into a Freedom Award which you can use any day except around Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is pretty much how legacy carrier programs operate. I have to say, it’s nice to have that option. There are frequent fliers out there who cannot use their awards fast enough, so for them this will be most helpful, especially if they’re trying to fly during a busy time.
As you can see, these changes are all focused on improving the experience of the business traveler. I realize Southwest had to figure out a way to improve their revenues, keep business travelers happy, and not drive the core leisure travelers away from the airline. I think what they’ve done is about as close as they can get to achieving those goals.
They’ve kept the core of the airline the same. There is still only one class of service onboard, there is still open seating, and there are still no change fees. To me, that’s the heart of the matter. As a more infrequent, generally price-sensitive Southwest flier, the only thing I don’t like is that there will be a bunch of A boarding passes ahead of me no matter what I do. We’ll see how much of a problem that becomes. If it makes getting a good seat just about impossible, then I will most likely start flying someone else. But if that’s not the case, then I won’t change a thing.