Yes, you read that correctly; my 12 year love affair with Southwest Airlines is over and truthfully, it’s irrational on my part and Southwest’s too. Perhaps you could say we have irreconcilable differences.
Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, uses studies from behavioral economists to prove we humans are not the rational beings we like to think we are…at least most of the time. One such study that highlights our irrationality is the ultimatum game.
In the ultimatum game, person A is given $10 and can choose to give any amount to a playing partner, person B, and keep the rest for himself or herself. How much would you give person B? Is $1 enough? After all, that’s better than nothing. Would you give $4 or $5? That seems like something a fair-minded individual would do. How about $6 or $7? It’s a rare person who would give away more than they would keep.
There’s a catch to the game; person B can reject the whole deal – meaning neither side gets to keep any of the money – if they don’t like what’s being offered.
Things change rather dramatically under conditions of perceived fairness. Person A almost always offers $4 or $5 in hopes of being viewed as fair because that usually leads to agreement. When agreement is reached everybody wins because both parties leave better off financially than they were before the game started.
If you think about it rationally though, if you were offered $1 that’s better than nothing and yet the vast majority of people don’t view it that way. If something “fair” isn’t offered, person B will almost always reject it…even to their own financial detriment.
Consider that for a moment – people willingly subject themselves to “injury” (take no money instead of a few free bucks) just to punish the other person when they feel they’re being treated unfairly. You need look no further than divorce court to see this play out in real life!
How does this impact Southwest and me? I fly a good bit but recently learned I had lost my A-List status with Southwest. When I called to find out why, I was told I needed 25 flights in 2015 but only had…24. I thought it reasonable to ask for an exception given my loyalty, increased flights in recent years, and because I had a December business trip I needed to reschedule till this spring. I’d be hard pressed to think of a handful of times I’ve flown other airlines the past five years and when I have it’s because I traveled with colleagues who had already booked flights.
My request was rejected three times at various levels over the phone and one last time after writing a letter. The reason Southwest wouldn’t budge was “to maintain the integrity of the [frequent flier] program.” I was shocked given the level of customer service I’d experienced with Southwest and my loyalty over the past dozen years. I would have expected that response from many other companies but not my beloved Southwest!
Being a persistent guy I finally emailed CEO Gary Kelly (you’ll never hear “Yes” if don’t ask, right?). At each level Southwest dug their heels and now I have, too, because I’ve made the choice to take at least a couple of flights on other airlines this year. It’s irrational because Southwest flights are almost always on time, their flight attendants are great, and the more I fly the better my chances at getting my coveted A-List status back. But like the person who feels they were treated unfairly in the ultimatum game, I don’t care!
For Southwest’s part, they could have made a loyal customer even more loyal by saying, “Mr. Ahearn, seldom do we make an exception like this but we can see you’re a loyal customer and we appreciate your business so we’ll do it this one time. Will you still be flying with us every chance you get?” Boom! I would have been happy and would have told them I’d absolutely fly Southwest at every chance. And you know what, I would have, because they would have used the principles of scarcity, reciprocity, and consistency on me at the same time. Making such an exception would have cost them almost nothing other than letting me to accrue frequent flier miles 25% faster. That benefit equates to me getting a free ticket 25% sooner which might cost Southwest about $100 assuming a I earn a $400 round trip ticket a year.
So Southwest has made an irrational choice, too, because when I choose to fly other airlines, Southwest will lose more revenue than they would have “given up” if they’d simply accommodated my request.
Much like the ultimatum game, there comes a point when everyone loses despite their best effort to persuade the other side. In this instance I lose and Southwest loses too. But, we’re all human after all so I’m sure it’s not the last time Southwest will stick to their guns nor will it be my last time to stick to mine.