They sped down the runway with high hopes, but frequent-flier programs tied to mortgages have failed to take wing.
In 1995, when American Airlines aligned itself with five mortgage companies to distribute frequent-flier miles, the programs were expected to be as popular as credit cards that offered travel incentives. But several programs have fallen by the wayside, and others are finding tepid consumer interest.
Analysts said that consumers view frequent-flier points as minor compared to buying a home or getting a mortgage. The programs award one air mile for every dollar of interest over the length of a loan-a nice frill, perhaps, but not a decision-clinching one.
Another complication has been the cost of the program to lenders.
Each bank in the American Airlines program paid more than $100,000 to participate. Nonetheless, as many as 15 lenders were expected to enroll when the program was unveiled.
Today American's partners have been whittled to three, and the airline has no plans to expand the enterprise.
Kenneth Kurtz, a partner in San Diego-based consulting firm Mileage Mortgage and one of the program's creators, said it was a good sign that only a handful of mortgage firms were offering frequent-flier points.
"The program was designed to help lenders gain a competitive advantage and differentiate themselves in the marketplace," Mr. Kurtz said. "If just anybody can do it, then you lose that competitive advantage."
American Airlines said the three remaining partners-Great Western Financial Corp. in Chatsworth, Calif.; Jacksonville, Fla.-based HomeSide Lending Inc.; and PHH Mortgage Services of Mount Laurel, N.J.-represent a good demographic and geographic mix.
"No matter what kind of market we are in or where a customer might want to get a loan, we can be there for them," Mr. Kurtz said.
But the remaining partners are not pushing the American Airlines program aggressively. Great Western has stopped offering the air mile tie-in on its home equity lines of credit, and other companies have eschewed heavy advertising.
To give consumers a choice-and perhaps to reinvigorate the program- American Airlines began offering a second option this year: Mortgage buyers can now claim their air miles up-front, receiving 1,000 for each $10,000 borrowed.
In March, GreenPoint Financial Corp. of New York started offering a 20,000-mile frequent-flier credit on American Airlines to all new applicants for home equity loans.
Also in March, D&N Financial Corp. of Troy, Mich., introduced a four- month promotion in which home-equity loan customers could earn up to 12,000 miles on NorthWest Airlines. Consumers responded favorably, the banking company said.
"The program attracted customers who qualified for a higher credit limit and were much quicker to use those funds," said Mary Jo Kristapovich, a spokeswoman for D&N.