Competition is heating up in the world of frequent-flier cards as banks that have exclusive deals with certain airlines face challenges from more generic plans.

Banks offering cards that can accumulate benefits with any airline are touting the choice and flexibility they afford. By implication, they are hurling barbs at the handful of credit card issuers that locked in deals with major airlines earlier in the decade, when cobranding was in its infancy.

When all the big carriers were spoken for, it seemed to many observers that the contest was over. But through arrangements other banks have made with travel agencies, cardholders can get a broad range of mileage rewards with fewer blackout dates and other restrictions.

Given the popularity of cards that allow sales points to be applied toward free or discount travel, the marketing stakes are high-as can be the revenue to issuing banks. People who carry air mile cards pay annual fees, use the cards often to accumulate points, and usually stay loyal for a long time.

In the last three months, First Union Corp. and National City Corp. have introduced air mile cards that can be used with all carriers.

MasterCard International is helping other issuers do the same. On Thursday it will introduce a card for small businesses that gives awards on any airline, with no restricted dates. Advanta Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. are the first issuers.

"As an issuer, we said, 'We can do one better'" than cobranded airline cards, said Jeffrey Klimek, senior vice president of consumer finance and marketing manager at National City of Cleveland, which launched FirstAir Visa in February.

The product "takes it up a notch because of its flexibility," Mr. Klimek said. The bank's research indicates that the card, with domestic and international travel opportunities and no blackout dates, will appeal to 25% of people who apply for credit cards.

Most people do not fly the same airline all the time, Mr. Klimek said. "People are looking to see what is the best deal," he said, and a single airline does not always have the best route.

Under the programs run by National City and First Union, consumers can earn free tickets with fewer mileage points, but only for regional travel. To qualify for longer flights, they must earn a number of points comparable to what is required by the cobranded cards.

For years, American Express Co. was the only card issuer to offer a product with a flexible airline rewards program. People in American Express' Membership Rewards program can earn points to travel on more than a dozen major airlines, or can spend them at various hotels, car rental agencies, or retail stores.

(This is separate from the Delta SkyMiles Optima card, a more conventional cobranding tie-in between American Express and Delta Airlines.)

In Membership Miles, points are transferred into cardmembers' regular frequent-flier accounts, making them susceptible to blackouts and other airline restrictions.

"American Express is still an intermediary," said Bruce Brittain, president of Brittain Associates Inc., an Atlanta-based market research firm. The programs from First Union and National City "make the issuer the travel agent."

Another longtime cobranded card issuer, Citigroup, does not view its deal with the American Airlines AAdvantage program as threatened.

Customers who would opt for a generic mileage card are a "very different target market," said Faith Massingale, business manager of Citibank AAdvantage. "I'm not sure there is a lot of crossover there. There are people who have very strong brand loyalty."

The AAdvantage Visa card has been around for 11 years and is available in 18 countries. Ms. Massingale would not say how many customers or receivables are in the portfolio, but said it has undergone "double-digit growth for years."

Other exclusive relationships include Chase Manhattan Corp.'s with Continental Airlines (which demanded that Chase have no other relationships with airlines, prompting the bank to sell its British Airways program to the First USA division of Bank One Corp. last year), and U.S. Bancorp's with Northwest Airlines.

Despite the proliferation of open travel cards, cobranding is still hot. One consultant said he is working with an airline that wants a new credit card partner, and eight banks are vying for the deal.

As more banks seek these programs' ample revenue and low attrition rates, cards that offer a choice of airlines seem to offer the best of both worlds: the consumer appeal of frequent flier rewards and no need to share revenue with an airline partner or succumb to its rules.

"Frequent-flier programs are the strongest of all cobranded programs," said Christopher Theoharides, president of Advantage Consulting Group Inc. in Massapequa, N.Y. "They are, in essence, the No. 2 currency."

Mr. Theoharides, who has worked on several airline deals, said people typically spend $18,000 to $20,000 a year on cards that accrue mileage points, versus $3,000 on others.

William F. Keenan, president of De Novo Corp. in Wilmington, Del., a consultant with expertise in cobranding, predicted that the unrestricted programs would "give more traditional cobranded programs a run for their money. The more control you give the consumer, the better."

"The universal programs weaken the position of the airlines and will force them to be more adaptable," he said.

He said the open-carrier concept can get smaller banks into the game. "It levels the playing field for those issuers who were not able to sign up an airline," he said.

Advantage Consulting and BAI Global Inc. of Tarrytown, N.Y., have teamed up to study the strengths of various cobranded cards. Frequent flier cards will be the subject of the first joint Cobrand Monitor publication. Preliminary research results are due out at the end of May.

"One of the questions is, 'How is the influx of these new mileage programs impacting your loyalty to your existing credit card?'" Mr. Theoharides said.

Before First Union introduced a mileage program, it spent a year polling customers about the attributes they looked for in a card. Many respondents had had negative experiences with cobranded airline cards.

"They told us they had difficulty cashing in their miles and were turned off by all the nasty restrictions," said Leslie Castillo, vice president of new product development at First Union.

This month, First Union introduced three air travel cards. The Airmiles Visa offers one mile for every dollar spent and comes with an interest rate of prime plus 7.9% and a $50 annual fee.

Airmiles Plus costs $75 a year and has an interest rate of prime plus 5.9%, but offers cardholders 1.2 miles for every dollar spent.

The third card, Travel & More, is meant for customers who revolve a balance. An annual fee of $49 starts after the first year, the interest rate is prime plus 4.9%, and 10 miles are awarded for every $100 of balances.

In each program, a customer can redeem 18,000 points for an airline ticket for travel in his or her region of the country, and rewards go up from there. First Union uses an outside travel agency to book the tickets; it would not say which one.

"We've made an effort to make our product stand out and not be just a follower," Ms. Castillo said.

National City teamed with Travel Consultants of Grand Rapids, Mich., for its FirstAir Visa. Cardholders with 20,000 points can buy a ticket for travel in their half of the country.

FirstAir charges an annual fee of $45 for classic and $59 for platinum. Both come with an introductory rate of 6.9%, which jumps to prime plus 8.99% after six months.

Wells Fargo has offered a travel program since 1995: For $25 a year, Wells cardholders can accrue points toward tickets on any airline, with no restrictions.

Unlike some programs, Wells offers interim awards. For example, 7,500 points can be exchanged for a $100 discount on an air ticket.

Cardholders rack up more points if they revolve a balance, said Elizabeth Hoople, vice president of customer management and servicing for credit cards at Wells Fargo. "This stimulates the type of behavior that generates stronger income."

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