Almost a year ago, Frommer's warned readers that big corporations were preparing to reduce the value of loyalty points and frequent flyer miles.
Since then, we've seen the predicted onslaught come true.
Delta Air Lines made it harder for customers to obtain elite status and use the carrier's much-hyped airport lounges. American Airlines made redemption flights more expensive during busier periods. Marriott did something similar with its Bonvoy points, tossing the old rewards chart and hitting customers with dynamic redemption rates so it costs more to go to places that are actually popular. JetBlue made its loyalty program more complicated, too, in an effort to get customers to spend more to achieve perks. Starbucks, Chipotle, Dunkin', Best Buy—they've all made things harder on consumers as well.
After customers screamed bloody murder at the reduction in benefits, some companies, like Delta, relented in marginal ways in order to save face, but the net result is the same: Your miles and points are worth less today than 2 years ago. You now have to work harder to earn them, and you'll require more of them to redeem for travel.
But not with Southwest Airlines.
Southwest has done the unthinkable. As of January 1, 2024, the airline is changing its Rapid Rewards redemption requirements so that it will be easier for customers to achieve higher status, which in turn will make it possible to earn flights faster.
Before the changes, you had to fly 25 one-way legs (or earn 35,000 tier-qualifying miles) in a calendar year to qualify for what Southwest calls A-List status. But starting in 2024, you'll only need 20 flights. That's essentially 20% easier.
The program changes don't move the goalposts farther when it comes to earning a free flight. If anything, the adjustments make redemption faster in one key way.
Having A-List status boosts a customer's points-earning power by 25%, speeding passengers toward being able to get a free flight faster. With more flyers entering A-List status because of the new rules, more will find themselves earning free flights faster.
A-List status also grants passengers earlier boarding privileges (important for getting a good seat since Southwest doesn't reserve spots), grants members the right to switch to a different flight on the same day, and use faster priority lanes during check-in.
The changes will also enable passengers to redeem points in combination with cash, something Southwest didn't allow before. Now, if you aren't much of a frequent flyer and you don't have quite enough points for a free flight, you can top off a points shortfall with money to make up the difference.
If you don't fly much but still want to get some value out of the Southwest points you do have sitting around, the change will enable you to save some money on tickets.
Additionally, the airline changed qualifying rules for A-List Preferred status—that's for the subset of people who fly more often, taking at least 40 one-way flights per year.
“This is another example of Southwest deciding to zig when everybody else zags,” Jonathan Clarkson, Southwest’s vice president of marketing, told USA Today. “We have a program we want people to use and get the benefit of."
That may be true, but it's also true that Southwest has been facing considerable headwinds when it comes to reliability and reputation.
Many travelers have not forgotten about the airline's sustained operational meltdown over the December holidays that forced the cancellation of some 2,200 flights a day, and Southwest execs are surely still feeling the sting of being singled out for brutal mockery on Saturday Night Live earlier this year—two developments any public relations pro would dread.
So it stands to reason that Southwest would want to shore up its customer base and try to entice more people to include Southwest in their travel plans again.
The situation has a twinge of irony. Here we have an airline that has seen consumers call into question its ability to deliver on the core promise of easy transportation, yet this is the only airline using its frequent flyer program to attract new customers instead of restrict existing ones.
Thanks for the favor, Southwest. Now if you can just promise no more meltdowns, we might be able to be friends again.