AirTran Airways

It’s a difficult time for the airlines. The economy has fewer people opting for leisure or business travel. Fuel costs, when factored for inflation, are the highest they’ve been since 1981 and currently make up approximately 40% of the cost of an airline ticket.

Normally, a company can make up expenses by increasing what it charges but in this economy, people refuse to pay more, so the airlines have had to become a bit more crafty. Some things, the consumers aren’t likely to mind, like the installation of lighter seats or more frequent dumping of lavatory waste. Some are small inconveniences like fewer pillows, magazines, and meals, especially hot meals (which means a heavy onboard oven). Some are furtive charges like bag checking fees.

Many are turning to the economy airlines and supplementing by cashing in frequent flier miles for free or reduced-rate tickets. If you can wrap your brain around the idea of credits rather than miles, AirTran has an interesting and unusual frequent flier program. (It is worth noting that in some cities, AirTran may not serve the major airports, so if have a preferred airport, check into this before signing up.)

A big draw is that members can earn a free (one way) ticket after just three business class roundtrip flights, or four in coach class. Members earn credits in the traditional ways: for flights, receiving and using a branded credit card, or making purchases after spring boarding through their mall program. Though the program strives for (and prides itself in) simplicity, the specifics are actually a bit confusing, partially because it strays from the typical miles and utilizes its unique points system, and partially because the points earned or redeemed are all of varying amounts, making them difficult to remember. Trying to maximize points involves constantly consulting a chart.

Here are some points earned for typical activities:
Flights: A roundtrip flight on AirTran or partner Frontier Airlines earns 2 points for coach or 3 for business class.
Credit card: The christening purchase on AirTran’s Signature Visa card earns 8 points, then 1 point per $1,000 spent, or 2 points per $1,000 spent on AirTran travel. AirTran offers several branded credit cards: one has no annual fee and earns 1 point for every $2 spent (or 1:1 for AirTran travel) while another has a $39 fee but earns 1:1 for all purchases or 2:1 for AirTran travel. Points can also be earned on American Express purchases.
Partners: Through a partnership with Hertz, members can earn 0.5 point for any rental or 1 point if the rental is for 5 days or more. AirTran has a page of other partners for earning credits. There are few partners at this time, so credit cards are still the best bet for rapidly earning points.

For redemption, it takes 20 points for a RT ticket in the 48 contiguous on Frontier or AirTran. The program offers the unique feature of allowing reward booking on OTHER, non-partner airlines for 32 points per RT (48 contiguous or Canada or Mexico).

Of course, as with all programs, it is important to analyze up-front how much outlay it would take to feasibly earn a ticket, and if you do not plan to redeem the credits for AirTran tickets, bear in mind that 32 points represents $32,000 on the annual fee Visa, or 16 roundtrip AirTran flights. Be sure to visit the AirTran website and look through the plan details to decide whether it’s for you. In 2010, you could save 5% using an OPEN for Business Card from American Express but that has ended now that Southwest has taken over the low cost airline.

Compare to Southwest Airlines who now owns Airtran!

fuel costs:
fuel: 40% of ticket price: