The Airline That Changed the Game in 2019

PHOTO: shutterstock/La Bella Studio

Which airline is making gains in customers’ hearts (and wallets)?

We’re well into 2019, and in the fast-paced travel industry, you might be wondering, “What airline is really changing the game?” And that’d be a fair question. Given that most airlines are “enhancing” their products by devaluing frequent flier programs, jamming more seats into planes, and trimming benefits in premium cabins, how could an airline change the game (in a good way)? Here are our criteria:

Relevance

Most Americans fly for domestic travel, most want to easily redeem their points for economy class award tickets, and most people need to take luggage with them (not just a tiny backpack) when they travel. We factored this into our decision.

Destinations Served

If an airline doesn’t fly where most people want to go, it doesn’t matter how much of a game-changer they are. There are some very strong regional airlines and a few small airlines are really shaking things up in the industry, but scale matters.

Loyalty Program Quality

While they certainly make for great blog articles, most people never book international first and business class “aspirational awards.” Leaving aside the fact that 64 percent of Americans don’t have a passport, it’s hard for most of us to either book 330 days in advance or last-minute, which is when these “aspirational” award flights, like Etihad’s Apartments or Lufthansa First Class, are often available. And most of us want more than one seat, which is often all that is available.

Achievable Benefits

Airlines continue to reward their best and most valuable customers with an extraordinary level of service, up to and including the use of a private suite and terminal at LAX with “entourage service” (whatever that is). However, most people don’t fly nearly enough to get elite benefits, and especially don’t fly enough in premium cabins to ever dream of this level of service. What’s a realistic option for most people? Signing up for a single airline credit card.

Valuable Benefits

It seems like almost every airline is installing mood lighting on their aircraft and changing up the boarding music. Many airlines offer a bevy of benefits (such as rental car discounts) that in practice are hard to use or deliver scant value. The most valuable benefits for most people are award tickets and free checked luggage, distantly followed by pre-boarding.

The Game Changer: Southwest

So far in 2019, Southwest has mostly shaken things up by staying the same:

  • They allow everyone two free checked bags on every flight, plus a carry-on (other airlines charge for bags, or require you to carry their credit card to get this benefit—and most airline credit cards only allow one bag).
  • Seats are “first come first serve,” greatly reducing the value of pre-boarding (although Southwest does allow its “A-list” members the first 30 places in line, everyone else can check in exactly 24 hours before departure and end up close enough to the front of the line to score a window or aisle seat without paying extra for Early Bird Checkin).
  • The frequent flier program, Rapid Rewards, is very easy to understand and use. Points are earned based on what you spend. When you redeem points, they are worth a fixed value toward the cost of a flight. Also, every seat on the plane is available for Rapid Rewards bookings. Some redemptions are less expensive than with other airlines, some cost more, and all come with the same benefits as if you bought the ticket with cash.
  • Other airlines charge ticket change and cancellation fees (at up to 100 percent). All Southwest flights can be changed or canceled with no fees, up to 10 minutes before departure. This is particularly valuable when the price of a ticket goes down; you can simply refund the original and buy it again at the lower price.

Apart from the frequent flier program, all of the benefits above are “elite level” benefits on other airlines. At a minimum, you’d need their premium credit card. At a maximum (such as to receive waivers of change fees), you’d need to be a high-status member. Meanwhile, everyone who buys a ticket on Southwest gets these benefits.

Did Southwest rest on its laurels? No! They have introduced flights to Hawaii (on launch day starting at just $49), from three California cities, giving Rapid Rewards members the ability to redeem their points for any seat on these flights (even during peak times like summer and the winter holiday season). If you have ever tried to fly to Hawaii using other airlines’ points, you probably know how difficult this is: you’re either paying crazy prices or there’s no availability (or both).

Southwest also changed up its credit card assortment with Chase and ran a Companion Pass promotion. It’s normally very hard to earn a Companion Pass (you have to take 100 flights on Southwest or earn 110,000 Rapid Rewards points), but it can be really valuable: you can take someone along on every Southwest flight you book–yes, even on award flights! However, during the month of January, if you signed up for any of the new Southwest credit cards and met a $4,000 minimum spend, you could earn a promotional Companion Pass good for the rest of the year. Want to take someone to Hawaii? It is possible.