GE Capital Services and the airline industry's trade association are launching a cobranded corporate charge card program with American Airlines Inc.

American is the first airline to partner with GE and the Air Travel Card, a venture of the Air Travel Association. Called the Asset Card, it will add the acceptability and functions of a MasterCard to American Airlines' corporate card, which has been used specifically for air travel.

The Air Travel Card, the airline industry's business travel payment system, was established in 1936 by American Airlines. The card is issued by 25 carriers, including seven domestic ones, and is accepted by more than 200 airlines worldwide. More than 100,000 corporations use the card.

Air Travel Cards racked up $8.5 billion in global billings in 1994.

American Airlines, based in Fort Worth, Tex., is the first in the industry to adopt the added feature. GE Capital will offer the service to the six other U.S. airline issuers: Continental Airlines, Trans World Airlines, United Airlines, Northwest Airlines, USAir, and Delta Airlines. Eventually, the program could be rolled out to other countries.

American said the card will be an addition to its existing Air Travel Card, rather than a replacement. Companies that opt for Asset cards will still be billed for airline charges, but employees will be billed individually for other travel charges, like meals and hotel rooms.

American will provide detailed activity reports monthly through GE's capture process. American will receive interchange income for airline charges, and GE Capital will get the income from other charges.

Not to be confused with consumer programs like the Citibank/American Airlines Advantage card, Air Travel Cards do not offer airline miles or discounts, but they can be used by corporations as a bargaining chip to get lower rates on heavily used routes.

By consolidating employee air expenses on the card, corporations can keep track of their costs and cut special deals with airlines, said James L. Accomando, a Fairfield, Conn.-based industry consultant.

The airline tie-in "is a real coup for GE Capital," he said. "While the number of cards will be small, the dollars (charged) will be substantial."

The card will provide extra flexibility and more choices for corporate customers, said Joseph P. Horak, spokesman for Washington-based Air Travel.

The program joins the Visa and MasterCard corporate programs in trying to gain a piece of a market dominated by American Express Co., which has issued more than seven million of this type of travel and entertainment card.

GE Capital, based in Stamford, Conn., will provide the banking, billing, and reporting services for the cards, which will feature the name of the airline, the Air Travel Card, and the MasterCard logo.

The cards will not have a revolving line of credit, but will come with a tiered annual fee, from $10 to $55 each, based on the number of employees in the company.

Carlson Wagonlit Travel, one of the largest travel agencies in the world, and Household International, issuer of the General Motors MasterCard, launched a cobranded travel and entertainment card in December.

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