They say that bad things come in threes. Southwest Airlines seems to think so, or at least their recent policy changes are playing out that way. First it was the changes to their “travel bank” funds policy. Then there was the claim that mechanical problems aren’t really their fault. And today it is strike three: Many drink coupons will lose their value this weekend.
Southwest has had a VERY lenient policy regarding drink coupons over the years. Most notably was that, although there was an expiration date printed on the coupons, they were always accepted. As of Sunday, August 1, 2010 that will no longer be the case. Starting in the new month no chits will be accepted past their printed expiry date. Additionally, chits that do not have an expiry date printed on them will inherit such a date: August 31, 2011. Finally, the drink coupons that customers receive for buying Business Select fares – the most expensive fares Southwest offers – will now only be valid on the day of travel; they cannot be saved for future use.
There are also some changes expected with the next round of drink chits that get issued. Most notably they have the customer’s name and Rapid Rewards member number printed on them. No word yet from the company on why they will be personalized but it will certainly limit the 3rd party market value of the chits. Selling a drink chit on eBay is much less likely to happen if it has a name and member number on it.
A customer flying on a high fare to a customer site early in the morning can no longer save that drink chit for a double on the flight home the next day. Customers who have accrued coupons over the years can no longer cash them in on flights unless they are flying this weekend and looking to buy a round for the whole plane. And a customer who doesn’t drink but who has the chits can no longer make a couple bucks back selling the chits that they’d otherwise not consume.
Each of these changes related to the drink chits is one that reduces value to the customer and decreases financial exposure to the company. Certainly they look good from the analyst perspective at the headquarters in Dallas. It remains to be seen, however, if the changes will also have an impact on customer satisfaction in any material way.
Moreover, combining all of the changes of the past week together it appears that Southwest is quickly shedding its reputation of customer-focused policies. In an era of record-high load factors there may not be a whole lot of other places for disgruntled customers to turn, but as carriers start adding capacity back into the system – something that most are planning in the coming quarters – there will be other options out there for customers. Bags Fly Free might not be enough to keep all of them, especially the ones who feel that Southwest is now just another carrier, not something special.
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