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Low-cost carriers launch innovative mileage programs

Frequent flyer programs were once offered solely by the full-service, full-price airlines. Then the low-cost carriers launched their own bare-bones loyalty programs to compete against the higher-priced competition. More recently, some discounters have begun building out their programs to rival those of the mainline carriers, adding multiple earning and award partners, special benefits for elite members, and so on.

And in the latest development in this ongoing story, discount carriers are going beyond playing catch-up and are offering benefits not appropriated from the established mileage schemes.

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As evidence of this newfound creativity, a new study by consulting company IdeaWorks cites eight low-cost carriers which have launched mileage programs with one or more novel features within the past 12 months. Among them:

1. Eos Airlines (U.S.) offers its Club 48 members the option to pool miles from up to nine individual accounts to earn a free reward.

2. Virgin Blue Airlines (Australia) allows Velocity program members to spend points like cash with savings available for off-peak departures.

3. Spirit Airlines (U.S.) offers five elite tiers in its Free Spirit program and plans to name an aircraft in its fleet in honor of its annual top flier.

4. Germanwings (Europe) provides its Boomerang Club members an early boarding privilege after they apply for the program's co-branded credit card.

It's too soon to tell whether this trend has long-term momentum. But in a best-case scenario, low-cost carrier programs will develop as a force to be reckoned with, spurring the stodgier major airlines toward more innovation and generosity to maintain their competitive edge. And that can only be good for travel consumers.

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