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AirTran, Midwest in mileage battle over Milwaukee

It's not often that airline customers enjoy the full benefits a competitive marketplace is assumed to provide.

Sure, competition has kept prices down (a recent New York Times article reports that since deregulation, the cost to fly has declined by more than 50 percent). But service and comfort have tanked. And those systemwide double-mile offers of previous decades are just that: a thing of the past.

So the looming battle between Midwest and AirTran for Milwaukee air travelers is a welcome change, especially for loyalty program participants. The weapon of choice: frequent flyer points.

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AirTran this week rolled out a triple-credit offer for members of its A+ Rewards program who fly round-trip between Milwaukee and Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Ft. Myers, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Orlando, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa, and Washington, D.C. The offer will be in effect between May 6 and September 5.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee-based Midwest is already offering double miles for flights between Milwaukee and Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, or Phoenix through May 31.

And from June 1 through September 5, the bonus is even better: double miles for the first round-trip flight, triple miles for the second round-trip, and a free companion ticket after the third round-trip flight between Milwaukee and Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, or Washington, D.C.

For those flying from or to Milwaukee in the coming months, the AirTran-Midwest confrontation will be a mileage windfall.

There's an intriguing backstory to this very public mileage dustup. In late 2006, AirTran launched a hostile takeover bid for Midwest, which was followed by a year of bitter wrangling. While Midwest was ultimately successful in rebuffing the offer, the bad blood between the two companies persists.

And it raises questions about the motivation behind AirTran's frontal attack on Midwest's hometown market. Is this a business-driven tactic to make inroads into Midwest's local dominance? Or is this AirTran's attempt to destabilize Midwest before making another acquisition run?

In either case, to the extent that their animosity is played out in extra frequent flyer miles, for consumers the drama is as rewarding as it is entertaining.

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