Phone Lines Jam, as Furious Customers Ream Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines

It always seemed that Southwest Airlines was a popular, and well-liked airline, considering they branded themselves as, “The Southwest Difference,” and offered a special accommodations to their flyers such as, free baggage carry-on, In flight amenities and a high level of customer service. However, it appears that right now, customers aren’t seeming so satisfied with Southwest Airline & their frequent-flier program. Things are taking a turn for the worst as complaints are piling up rapidly at Southwest Airlines over its new frequent-flier program, with very long waits on the airline’s phone lines and even negative feedback and comments on their Facebook page.

Southwest launched a redesigned Rapid Rewards frequent-flier program March 1st that bases credits on how much you pay for a ticket, not simply on the number of flights you take. It adds lots of complexity, as noted here, and is one more sign that Southwest is moving beyond its all-things-simple philosophy and becoming more like a multifarious “regular’’ airline. (Declines in on-time, baggage and passenger bumping performance were detailed here. The complexity added by Southwest’s proposed acquisition of AirTran was noted here.)

Chief Executive Gary Kelly says that because Southwest is indeed a very different airline these days, the program had to change, too. Mr. Kelly has said business travelers who pay higher fares need better rewards, and Southwest wants to attract more of them. And in the airline’s in-flight magazine this month, Mr. Kelly tells customers that potential new long-haul destinations like Hawaii and Alaska, as well as international destinations like the Bahamas, are more reasons a new program was needed. “The all-new Rapid Rewards program positions Southwest customers well for the future,’’ he wrote.

But the new program has clearly angered many loyal customers. On the airline’s Facebook page, the comments wall is plastered with angry feedback from disappointed customers.

“You are now free to book airline tickets on another airline to move about the country,’’ Beverly Reuter posted on Wednesday, mimicking one the airline’s own advertising slogans. “This new RR program is a nightmare. … Very sad for SWA.’’

Other customers complain of very long waits on Southwest’s own phone lines. Some problems with the frequent-flier program transition, such as customer inability to find old flight credits in the new system, have apparently jammed phone lines since customers can’t resolve problems on the airline’s website.

One customer reported a wait on hold of eight hours; another said she received a recorded message saying Southwest was too busy and call back later. I called Southwest’s main ticket-buying number Wednesday morning (800-I-FLY-SWA)and gave up after 16 minutes on hold—long enough to know something is wrong.

A Southwest spokeswoman said the airline has been trying to address customer questions about the new program, and phone lines have been swamped because of confusion, particularily around the issue of seeing past credits show up in the new program’s accounts. “There were some issues. It’s a giant transition to new technology,” Southwest’s Whitney Eichinger said. “We’re doing everything we can to answer those questions. … We know it’s been a tough week.’

As for complaints about the program itself, Ms. Eichinger said the airline knew some customers would have questions about how it would affect them, while others would be pleased with the changes. “We do expect a certain level of angst over the change,” she said, adding, “This change is going to be for the better.”’

Credited Sources for this post: Wall Street Journal & Scott McCartney

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