Virgin America Expands Its Mileage Program

Monitoring the progress of Virgin America's Elevate program has been a bit like watching grass grow. Finally, though, there are a couple of shoots to report.

For background, when Virgin launched its flights in August of 2007, it did so with the promise that a loyalty program was in the works, with details to be announced later. What the company was willing to disclose early on was intriguing, in particular the promise that there would be no capacity controls on awards.

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Later, the program was made available, but only in hobbled form. Members could earn points for Virgin flights, and for charges on the program-affiliated credit card, but they still couldn't cash in their points for awards.

It wasn't until October 2008 that Elevate members—500,000 had signed up for the program by then—were permitted to redeem their points.

While Elevate boasted some positive features, I criticized the program on two counts: a particularly harsh expiration policy (points disappear after 18 months), and the lack of earning and award partners.

Effective this week, Virgin has taken a small step toward addressing the latter gripe by adding two rental car companies to the list of program partners.

Elevate members can now earn one point for every dollar spent, plus a discount, on Avis and Budget rentals. To promote the tie-up, both companies are offering bonus points for rentals completed through July 31: 100 bonus points for Avis rentals of three or more days; double points for Budget rentals up to five days, or 250 bonus points for rentals of six or more days.

Elevate has a long way to go if Virgin is serious about competing against the loyalty programs of the larger airlines, most of which boast hundreds of opportunities to earn miles, and free flights anywhere in the world as awards. Even Southwest, whose Rapid Rewards program is another notable laggard in this regard, has partnered with six rental car companies and seven major hotel chains.

Still, at the very least, it's a step forward for Elevate. More hopefully, it could be a sign that the company intends to realize the program's full potential.

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