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Southwest Airlines Unveils Major Updates to Rapid Rewards Program

Southwest Airlines is shaking up its Rapid Rewards program with a series of changes that aim to enhance the experience for its loyal customers. These enhancements come at a crucial time for the airline, which has been grappling with operational challenges and striving to regain the trust of its passengers. Let’s dive into what these changes mean for Southwest’s Rapid Rewards members.

Earning Elite Status Just Got Easier

One of the most significant changes is the adjustment to the requirements for earning A-List and A-List Preferred status. Starting on January 1, 2024, Rapid Rewards members will need to complete fewer qualifying flights to qualify or requalify for status. Interestingly, the thresholds for those qualifying by tier-qualifying points remain unchanged, though earning TQPs from a cobranded credit card becomes easier.

For A-List status, the bar has been lowered from 25 one-way qualifying flights to just 20 flights, or 35,000 tier-qualifying points. This change makes it more attainable for frequent Southwest flyers to enjoy the benefits of A-List status, which include priority boarding, priority check-in, bonus points, and even same-day confirmed changes with no difference in base fare (pending availability).

A-List Preferred status, which offers even more perks, will also be more accessible. The requirements have been reduced from 50 one-way qualifying flights to 40 flights or 70,000 tier-qualifying points. Achieving A-List Preferred status brings additional benefits such as free inflight WiFi. Again, the TQP thresholds remain the same, so this primarily helps those who qualify by number of flights taken.

Boosting Your Status with Credit Card Spending

The Rapid Rewards program’s tie-in with Southwest’s cobranded credit cards from Chase has also received a facelift. Cardmembers will now earn 1,500 tier-qualifying points for every $5,000 spent, previously $10,000. This change encourages credit card users to accelerate their progress toward elite status by making everyday purchases on their cobranded Chase cards.

In-Flight Perks for A-List Preferred Members

For A-List Preferred Members, starting November 6, 2023, there’s a new perk on the horizon: up to two complimentary premium drinks per flight. These drink coupons will be seamlessly added to their mobile boarding passes to redeem onboard.

Flexibility in Booking with Cash and Points

In spring 2024, Rapid Rewards Members will enjoy increased flexibility when booking flights. They will have the option to pay for their flights using a combination of cash and Rapid Rewards points, starting with as few as 1,000 points. This may prove to be a much better option than purchasing points to top off your account when you fall just short of a redemption.

Southwest’s Road to Recovery

While these changes to the Rapid Rewards program may seem like a welcome improvement, they come at a time when Southwest is working diligently to regain the trust of its customers. The airline has faced operational challenges and customer service issues in recent years that have earned it the unfortunate moniker “Southworst” by some passengers.

It’s important to note that Southwest’s business model of point-to-point flights without large hubs has, at times, made it more vulnerable to operational issues. Unlike major hub airports where replacement aircraft and crew can be more readily available, point-to-point models can face greater challenges when issues arise. Additionally, when a single flight number is used for many stops, and passengers are thru-ticketed on it, any issue from A-B creates a domino effect on B-C, C-D, and so on.

Furthermore, while the offer of complimentary premium drinks for A-List Preferred Members is a nice touch, it may not be a game-changer for everyone, especially when compared to the perks offered by legacy carriers. For instance, American’s entry-level Gold elites enjoy complimentary access to Main Cabin Extra seating, which includes complimentary alcoholic beverages without a stated limit. Additionally, if an elite passenger is upgraded, complimentary drinks are a standard offering.

As for earning tier status, American’s Loyalty Points scheme still makes it considerably easier to earn elite status via credit card spend alone, offering a straight $1 = 1 LP ratio. Earning low-tier A-list elite status will still require over $116k of credit card spend to earn on Southwest, while AAdvantage Gold requires only $40k (and that’s assuming you don’t partake in the myriad of other ways to earn LPs).

A Tough Competitive Landscape

Southwest’s decision to revamp its loyalty program is occurring in a competitive landscape where low-cost carriers are facing headwinds. The post-pandemic “revenge travel” boom appears to be fizzling out amid mass layoffs and rising inflation, and those who are traveling tend to favor European destinations, where Southwest does not operate. It theoretically could reach northwest Europe from the northeast US using the Boeing 737 MAX 8, but that would require obtaining costly landing slots at level 3 airports, and convincing passengers to spend 7 hours on a single-aisle narrowbody with limited catering.

Legacy carriers, on the other hand, are expanding their fleets, matching fares, and offering more international routes. This increased competition puts pressure on Southwest to adapt and make changes to keep its loyal customer base.

The changes to the Rapid Rewards program are undoubtedly a positive step for Southwest and its loyal passengers. It aims to make elite status more attainable, offers in-flight perks, and provides greater flexibility in booking flights. However, the airline still faces challenges on its path to recovery and must navigate a fiercely competitive aviation landscape. These enhancements to the Rapid Rewards program are a significant step in the right direction for Southwest, but the road ahead remains challenging.

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