First USA Inc. is making its maiden voyage with a frequent-flier card.
The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Visa was launched with great fanfare Wednesday morning. Senior executives from Visa, First USA, and Southwest were on hand at Love Field in Dallas.
"We have always tried to provide great value to our customers," said Richard W. Vague, chairman and chief executive of First USA Bank. "Southwest has the same reputation in the airlines. It's the best cobranded card in the industry."
The new card will piggyback on Southwest's Rapid Rewards program, which industry experts say is smaller than others but with a rewards structure that is more competitive than those of larger, national carriers.
Jeff Baxter, principal, S.J. Baxter & Associates, Baltimore, who has worked with First USA in the past, said bidding for the project was intense.
"First USA in the last three years has been really aggressive in cobranding," he said. "This is its first chance on an airline card."
Whereas most frequent-flier cards require cardholders to spend $25,000 to $40,000 before redeeming a ticket, Mr. Baxter said, the First USA card requires $16,000.
James L. Accomando, president of Accomando Consulting Inc., Fairfield, Conn., said Southwest had to use a lower purchase minimum because it goes to fewer cities than many other carriers and so "offers less value in its coverage."
The First USA program will adapt the existing Southwest rebate structure, where 16 one-way flight credits are redeemable for a round-trip ticket to any of the 48 cities the Texas-based carrier serves.
The cobranded card will also give one flight credit per $1,000 in purchases or balance transfers, and one flight credit for each one-way trip. Credits must be earned within 12 consecutive months.
"A lot of frequent-flier cards don't give you points for the balance transfer," Mr. Baxter said. There is a $5,000 limit.
New members automatically get two free flight credits with the first card purchase.
The $29 annual fee - those for other airline's cards typically run from $35 to $80 - will be waived for the first year.
The teaser rate of 6.9% jumps after six months to prime plus 8.65%; that would be 16.9% now.
"People who might not have reached our reward level will now be able to," said Herbert D. Kelleher, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Southwest Airlines. He added Southwest doesn't "restrict seats for rewards."
First USA's Mr. Vague called the reward structure, "a straightforward concept," relieving the consumer of having to keep track of miles.
Steven R. Lincoln, associate editor of InsideFlyer Magazine, Colorado Springs, said Southwest has 590,000 Rapid Rewards members. American Airlines' industry-leading AAdvantage program has 28 million.
Mr. Lincoln noted that Southwest has other partners for Rapid Rewards, including three car rental companies and MCI. One hundred fifty dollars in long-distance charges can be redeemed for one flight segment.
Carl Pascarella, president of Visa U.S.A., who was on hand at the launch ceremony, said the program is "very important to us. "This will recalibrate the marketplace for cobranded programs."