By now, you may well not charge a dime on any credit card unless it rewards you with airline frequent-flier points. But are you making your long-distance phone calls work for you the same way?
Since MCI began offering frequent-flier miles through American and Northwest airlines in 1989, other long-distance companies have hooked up with carriers, capitalizing on the program that has become an indispensable marketing tool for airlines.
Today, "affinity card" customers of MCI and five other telecommunications companies can earn at least five miles for every dollar spent on long-distance calls. At that rate, a $400-a-year long-distance bill could earn 2,000 frequent flier miles.
AT&T;, the nation's largest long-distance company, offers no frequent flier points but is expected to team up early next year with several major airlines, including United and Delta, which have no ties to a long-distance company.
"It's a defensive thing for AT&T; to keep people from jumping to Sprint and MCI," says Randy Petersen, publisher of Inside Flyer, the Colorado Springs-based magazine. "Before long, every major frequent-flier program will have an affinity card with a long-distance carrier."
A spokesman for MCI says the company has lured customers from other phone companies because of the program.
"We know that people have switched because of the affinity card," says Chris Mannella, director of partner sales and marketing at MCI in Arlington, Va.
Introduced by American Airlines in 1981, frequent flier programs were designed to create passenger loyalty by giving repeat customers free trips or upgrades to first class. Industrywide, membership has soared from 1.8 million to nearly 30 million in just 12 years.
Typically, the long-distance phone companies purchase miles from an airline. Customers who enroll receive an affinity card from the phone company. The frequent flier points they accumulate as a result of long-distance charges show up on periodic statements issued by the airlines.
Some companies offer points only on residential service while others include business lines, 800 numbers and calling cards.
The affinity cards are most beneficial for businesses with hefty monthly phone bills. Mr. Petersen's own company, for instance, spends $3,000 to $4,000 a month on phone service, he said. That means a free airline ticket about every two months. Typically, 20,000 to 25,000 points will earn a ticket in the continental United States.
"Residential customers probably won't earn a free ticket with their long-distance bills but a couple thousand extra miles could push them over the edge," Mr. Peterson said.
Most of the phone companies offer sign-up bonuses, ranging from 500 miles to 5,000 miles. To introduce its new program, Sprint is also offering customers 10 miles credit on Trans World Airlines for every dollar spent on long-distance calls in the first six months. Customers must sign up by Dec. 31.
But Mr. Petersen says consumers should look carefully at the phone company and its rates before switching. "If you pay twice as much for long-distance service just to earn miles, you need to re-evaluate your purpose."
The other long-distance companies offering frequent flier tie-ins are ALASCOM, Capital Tele Travel, Metro Media and GTE AirFone.