A joint promotion by Citicorp and Delta Air Lines points up how central frequent-flier miles have become in the minds of marketers.

Over the last few weeks, Citibank has been contacting its customers who are also Delta frequent-flier members, giving them a chance to earn miles by depositing money in Citibank accounts.

It is not a credit card promotion per se. In fact, Citibank issues a frequent-passenger affinity card for a Delta rival, American Airlines, and Delta does not have a frequent-flier tie-in with a bank credit card.

Citibank stresses that its deposit products, including funds attracted by the Delta mileage offer, are accessible through machines via its Citicard.

'An Incentive'

Customers earn 2,500 Delta bonus miles if they deposit $5,000 into a Citibank money management account - checking, savings, or money market. The offer expires May 31.

Citibank initiated the same promotion with American Airlines six months ago, said a bank spokeswoman. She added that such programs are "an incentive for our customers to deposit more money."

A Delta spokesman said that Citibank approached Delta with the idea and sent out the solicitations to their mutual customers. "This is a Citibank initiative," he emphasized.

According to Krissa Thompson, research director of Inside Flyer magazine, cross-marketing programs will multiply.

"It is already a given that miles earn loyalty, so I wouldn't be surprised if more banks say, 'Open an account with us and you'll earn 2,000 free miles,'" said Ms. Thompson.

She pointed out that there is at least one other program that links a savings vehicle to frequent-flier points.

AMR Investment Services Inc., a subsidiary of AMR Corp., which also owns American Airlines, introduced American Advantage Funds in 1991. Investors in the mutual funds accrue one bonus mile annually for every $10 maintained in their accounts. For example, an investment of $50,000 held for one year would earn 5,000 Advantage miles.

More Generous with Miles

The Citibank-Delta promotion is a little more generous with its miles.

Citibank will give its customers 2,500 points, up to 20,000 miles, for each increment of $5,000 deposited in one of the designated accounts. In other words, a customer would have to deposit $40,000 to reach the maximum benefit. And the 20,000 cap is 10,000 points shy of a free Delta ticket.

As a new carrot for the banking industry, frequent-flier miles represent "just the beginning of how banks will offer miles on their own," sais Ms. Thompson.

Banc One Corp., along with a few others, is proving that it is not necessary for financial institutions to enter formal partnerships with airlines in order to offer desirable bonus miles.

TravelPlus, a program introduced in January by Bank One Columbus, a subsidiary of the Ohio-based superregiona, is such an example.

The program allows cardholders to earn points by using Bank One Visa cards. After $12,000 of purchses, a cardholder earns a free ticket on any airline -- with the bank purchasing the ticket.

Expenses are kept down because ticket prices cannot exceed $500, and tht is for $20,000 in purchases. Spending $12,000 earns a ticket valued at no more than $350.

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