NEW YORK — Piedmont Airlines has sent about a million of its frequent flying customers blue envelopes made up to look like ticket jackets, complete with gate number and seat assignment, but people hoping for free trips should put away their suitcases.
The envelopes hold credit card applications; Piedmont last month became the latest airline to offer Visa cards to their frequent fliers, who accumulate bonus mileage when they use the cards.
Customers bank one mile per dollar in purchases. Without additional mileage from flights, a person would have to charge almost $30,000 on the Piedmont Visa card before banking enough miles for a free flight.
Such cards, either Visa, MasterCard or both, are also available to frequent fliers with Continental, Eastern, American and PSA, and United has announced it would offer them soon.
About 750 organizations, from the Sierra Club to National Car Rental, have also provided these so-called "affinity cards," with a variety of enhancements, to their members or customers.
The cards, similar to the Visa and MasterCards offered by many of the nation's banks, offer something to both the sponsoring organizations and the banks that issue them. There is something for the consumer, too, although consumer groups warn about becoming overly swayed by the bonuses.
The sponsor, which solicits credit card customers through its mailing lists, can stamp its name or logo on the card, putting an advertisement in every wallet. Service organizations like the Sierra Club or alumni organizations might also receive a donation every time the cards are used.
"It's another piece to reinforce the relationship between the consumer and the organization," said Richard Woods, a spokesman for MasterCard International.
The banks that issue the cards benefit by getting a preferred "segment" of the credit card market, usually high-income or big-spending customers. Members of alumni organizations and professional societies may be particularly well-heeled, and banks love to reach these people.
"It is pretty clear that group members use the card more often than general card holders," said Dave Brancoli, a spokesman for Visa USA.
And from 6% to 20% of an organization's members respond when solicited, compared with 1-3% response to general solicitations, Brancoli said.
But what do these cards offer consumers?
In some cases, the sponsoring organizations can get their members additional services, lower annual fees and lower interest rates than they might get at their local banks. The AFL-CIO, for example, offers cards with no annual fee and interest rates as low as 12.5% to most of its 13 million union members.
But the average interest rate is closer to 18%, according to the Bank Credit Card Observer, a New Jersey-based newsletter that tracks fees and interest rates charged by 200 banks around the country.
The airlines can offer frequent flier bonuses to cardholders, and other organizations provide discounts on goods and services when the cards are used.