American Express Co. and Delta Air Lines have lofty ambitions for their Delta SkyMiles Optima card, despite a late takeoff in the cobranding race.

Delta, the No. 1 airline based on number of passengers, is the last of the majors to market such a card, even though it has participated in American Express' Membership Rewards frequent-flier program since 1991.

The Atlanta-based carrier wanted "to expand the opportunities for our customers to earn miles, and we thought this would be an appropriate time to get into a cobranding credit card product," said Paul Matsen, Delta's vice president of advertising and consumer marketing.

Delta and American Express, which announced their alliance in August but did not reveal product details until last week, predicted it would take three years to overtake their leading cobranding competitors: Citicorp's American Airlines Advantage card and First Chicago NBD Corp.'s United Mileage Plus card, both begun in 1987.

"It's been a long time coming," Tammi Scheetz, research director of the Inside Flyer newsletter, said of Delta's entry into cobranding.

It is Amex's second cobranding launch. The New York-based charge card giant announced a Hilton Hotels Optima card in September.

As in other frequent-flier programs, customers will earn one mile for every dollar charged to the Delta SkyMiles Optima card, up to a $60,000 annual ceiling.

A 50% mileage bonus, not subject to a cap, will accrue on purchases of Delta tickets and Delta Dream Vacations. Cardmembers will earn 5,000 bonus points for enrolling.

"There really is no way to earn travel faster, on Delta or any other airline," said Brian Kleinberg, general manager of American Express' consumer card services group.

If cardholders fly Delta at least once every three years, their mileage points will not expire. Under Delta's SkyMiles program, frequent fliers can earn one coach economy class ticket for travel within the continental United States at 25,000 points.

The card has an introductory 8.9% interest rate for six months, which jumps to prime plus 9.4%. The rate on cash advances and accounts not in good standing is prime plus 12.9%.

The $55 annual fee is waived for American Express personal, gold, and platinum cardmembers in good standing.

Cardholders cannot earn points from cash advances or balance transfers. But cardholders who maintain a credit balance will get additional mileage equal to 20% of new purchases.

"This is our way of recognizing that for people who carry a balance, they are, in fact, paying more for the card," Mr. Kleinberg said. "We think it's only fair to provide them more miles as a result."

Anne Moore, president of Synergistics Research Corp. in Atlanta, said, "With Delta Sky Miles, whether you are a convenience user or revolver, you earn miles."

Ms. Moore pointed out that most American Express cardholders also carry a bank credit card, and a third of those revolve their balances. The company is "trying to get into the revolving market," she said.

Among those getting the marketing message will be the 18 million members of Delta's SkyMiles rewards program.

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