As travelers continue to grumble about the limitations of established frequent-flier programs, eight small airlines over the past year have quietly begun programs that include some innovative wrinkles.
Go, a new airline owned by Phoenix-based Mesa Air, became the latest airline to start a loyalty program in June when it started inter-island service in Hawaii.
Three other U.S. carriers -- Florida-based Spirit Airlines, Virginia-based Maxjet and New York-based Eos -- introduced frequent-flier programs this year. They join four foreign airlines -- Belgium's Virgin Express, Germany's Germanwings, Australia's Virgin Blue and India's Kingfisher -- that have begun loyalty programs in the past year.
None of the carriers has the global reach of behemoths such as American or United, and few have partnerships with bigger airlines that allow mileage credits to transfer.
But the new programs as a group offer some appealing features for the loyal customer: relatively low thresholds for free travel, generous bonus mileage provisions, fewer restrictions on free travel and lenient policies on mileage credit expiration.
"The major airlines should take notice, because these new programs offer great free travel benefits," says Jay Sorensen, president of consulting company IdeaWorks, which studied the eight carriers' programs.
Spirit's Free Spirit and Virgin Blue's Velocity "are amazingly mature programs," because they have features ordinarily offered by larger airlines, says Sorensen. Virgin Blue's partners include Virgin Atlantic, InterContinental Hotels Group and rental agency Europcar.
Fort Lauderdale-based Spirit offers a free ticket at 15,000 miles. That compares with the typical requirement of the big airlines' programs of 25,000 miles.
The privately owned airline flies to 30 cities in the USA, the Bahamas and the Caribbean, and operates a hub in Detroit.
To get a free round-trip ticket on Spirit, an average of 10 to 12.5 paid round trips are needed, Sorensen says. Assuming that an average round-trip flight on American Airlines is 2,000 miles, a free ticket would require 12.5 flights, he says.
Spirit's program is "very complex" and "is perhaps the most generous of any airline" in giving bonus miles to elite members, Sorensen says.
For example, members who spend $2,400 on tickets in the preceding six months, or earn 24,000 miles, are called VIP fliers and receive 200% mileage bonuses on full-fare coach tickets and certain business-class tickets.
The 500 members with the most miles in the program get 250% mileage bonuses for those tickets, and the top 10 get 300% bonuses. Members who make a single monthly purchase with a MasterCard linked to the program get a 150% bonus.
Spirit and Virgin Blue allow frequent-flier club members to use extra miles to get a seat when all the seats allotted for frequent-flier awards are booked.
A step further
Maxjet and Eos go a step further, promising to keep every seat open for a frequent-flier award with no blackout dates or capacity restrictions. Maxjet offers only business-class seats to London Stansted airport from New York John F. Kennedy and Washington Dulles airports. Eos carries only 48 passengers in "all-premium-class" service between JFK and Stansted.
The Eos program allows up to nine members to combine their points for a single award.
Maxjet allows five people to accrue points in one frequent-flier account. So, for example, a business may set up an account to pool the miles of five of its employees.
"This is especially beneficial to companies that have employees who travel frequently," says Maxjet spokeswoman Jean Swindell. Points or miles in the Maxjet, Eos and Go programs do not expire. Miles or points in the other new programs expire over varying periods. Members of Spirit's program who each month use a MasterCard linked to it, however, do not have their miles expire.
As jet-fuel prices soar and Delta battles to lift itself from bankruptcy protection, members who cherish their SkyMiles have a lot of worries.
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