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Southwest Airlines has generally flown against the grain among U.S. carriers as it bucks the trend of legacy pricing models, marketing strategy and customer service. But with a move it made this week, it’s getting squarely in line with its competitors on how it treats elite frequent flyers.
On Monday evening, the Dallas, Texas-based airline announced that it would be giving elite members of its Rapid Rewards loyalty program access to completely free same-day standby, a perk that until now included a change in fare pricing. Regular Rapid Rewards members and the casual public still need to pay for any difference in fare if they choose to fly standby.
There are constraints, of course. Free standby is only available to “A-List” and “A-List Preferred” members of the Rapid Rewards program, for which one needs to collect at least 35,000 points or 25 segments in a calendar year to qualify. The standby flight also must be within two hours of the original flight. All told, however, the perk is a significant upgrade to the Rapid Rewards program — and one that better aligns it better with competitors.
The ability to change flights on the day of travel is a fairly common perk among the highest tiers in legacy frequent flyer programs. Both Delta and United have offered elites the ability to change tickets up to 24 hours prior to departure time at no charge for several years, while American Airlines adopted a similar policy within the last year.
Along with free upgrades, waived cancellation fees on award tickets and free luggage, perks like free same-day standby are perceived as a strong value to business travelers, who often need more flexibility in their schedules. Southwest, however, traditionally hasn’t billed itself as a carrier of business class passengers; none of its aircraft have business class cabins nor does the airline operate dedicated airport lounges.
The airline’s sudden move to cater better to high frequency travelers thus may be an indication of its willingness to expand further into the business travel market. In the last two years, the big three carriers of American, Delta and United have all realigned their pricing strategies to sell more tickets to business class customers, a highly lucrative and dependable market. And if Southwest can better compete in that space, it too will start earning its share.