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Southwest Fields Complaints a Week After Loyalty Program Revamp

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March 9 (Bloomberg) -- Southwest Airlines Co., the largest low-fare carrier, said it’s “very busy” with customers’ complaints over its revamped loyalty program website a week after it was remodeled.

The Dallas-based airline is fielding calls using extra employees brought in before the March 1 debut of its new frequent-flier plan, Whitney Eichinger, a spokeswoman, said today. The overhaul of the Rapid Rewards program was the first since its debut in 1987.

Customers couldn’t access the website’s new features on that first day, and a telecommunications failure affected some airports and call centers, leading to flight delays. Gripes by telephone, e-mail and Facebook.com postings persist, with consumers saying they’re struggling to use credits, see bookings and reach agents.

“Right now, unfortunately, Southwest looks like it has stuck its head in the sand, put its fingers to its ears and is saying, ‘La, la, la, we don’t want to hear any bad news,’” Henry Harteveldt, vice president of Forrester Research Inc., said in an interview. “Even if they said, ‘We are aware of the problem, here’s what you should expect,’ people would at least know they are not ignoring this.”

Southwest blogged about the initial problem on March 2, and that same day posted a video to help program members with issues such as locating previous awards.

“For the past week, it’s been very busy,” said Eichinger, the Southwest spokeswoman.

Navigating the Site

“There’s not one part of it we can say is consistently not functioning,” Eichinger said of the website. “More of the questions now are how to navigate the site. We’re taking everything that’s coming in to us very seriously.”

All telephone calls go to the airline’s 800 number, where customers can choose a Rapid Rewards option for expedited service, Eichinger said. She couldn’t provide an average customer wait time.

“There have been folks calling in, long hold times,” Eichinger said.

The sheer number of calls likely is delaying customers seeking help for other issues, Harteveldt said.

“All of this drives costs to Southwest while, at the same time, having a negative effect on customer satisfaction,” he said.

Southwest fell 35 cents to $12.31 at 4:15 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The shares have declined 5.2 percent this year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas at maryc.s@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ed Dufner at edufner@bloomberg.net

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