When I picked up my mail yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to find a small package waiting for me. I was so curious that I opened it right in the post office and discovered a nifty luggage tag with my name printed on it.

The little gift arrived from Southwest Airlines with a note thanking me for five years of membership in their Rapid Rewards program. I had to laugh when I realized they were thanking me for taking advantage of their free flight program.

It’s no secret that I’ve been smitten with SWA from my very first encounter with them a decade or so ago. I had flown to Sacramento from Minneapolis on Northwest (almost the only option), but was taking a side trip to visit my family in southern California.

When I arrived at the airport, I stopped to ask a question at the gate. The gate agent then asked me if I was returning home to Burbank. “No,” I said, “it’s my birthday so I’m going to spend the rest of it with my daughter.”

By this time, the waiting area was filling up so I found a seat in the back and settled in. A few minutes later, the gate agent came on the PA system and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an important person flying with us tonight. Would you join me in singing Happy Birthday to Barbara?”

As my fellow passenger broke out in a rousing chorus, I blushed and thought, “This would never happen on NWA.” I’d had enough experience with the older carrier to know that making their passengers smile was not in their company policy manual.

Shortly after I moved to Minneapolis, Making a Living Without a Job became one of the most popular adult ed classes in the country. For the next decade, I flew frequently  and eventually amassed a million miles on NWA. (Note: I didn’t even receive a thank you note when I hit that milestone.)

It wasn’t because I loved the airline so much, however, that they got my business. In Minnesota, NWA had a near monopoly, bumping out other carriers and making it difficult to exercise any choice in the matter.

This lack of competition produced visible results. Airfares were higher, crews surlier, and planes dirtier. After all, there was no incentive for doing things well when customers had no other options.

After I moved to Las Vegas, I vowed to fly NWA only as a last resort. Even though I have frequent flyer miles sitting in my account, I have managed to avoid setting foot on one of their planes.

(On my last flight with them, my seatmate was a smelly drunk who should not have been allowed to board. Shortly after takeoff, he nodded off and began groping my leg. Instead of moving him from first class back to coach, I got reseated in a cramped smaller seat.)

On the other hand, I’ve wracked up numerous jolly memories of my flights with SWA. I often wonder if they studied NWA’s way of doing business and decided, “Let’s do the opposite.”

Saturday night stay over? Not required. Hire flight attendants who actually like people? Good idea. Keep things simple and efficient? Makes sense. Charge for baggage? Heck, no. Give passengers an in-flight magazine that’s actually worth reading? Let’s do it. Allow passengers to catch an earlier flight for no charge if there’s room? Sure.

So here’s another radical idea, one you can use even if you aren’t running an airline.

Find a business that disappoints you. Study how they operate. Don’t just be annoyed, however. Learn from them.

Then simply do the opposite.