By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Aug 08, 2007 at 5:19 AM

Last week, we raised the question about what would happen to the Midwest Airlines frequent flier program if AirTran is successful in its hostile takeover bid.

Any time one airline buys another, the merging of programs and the retention of customers, is a real challenge.

Tad Hutcheson, AirTran's vice president of marketing and sales, read the OMC blog and e-mailed us with this response:

"We will honor all Midwest Airlines miles (should the merger occur) and will convert them to A+ Rewards credits so you can use those credits on the combined airlines (Midwest and AirTran).
I notice you mention that we don’t have an international partner.  But, did you know that AirTran Airways is the only airline out there that will buy you a ticket on any airline anywhere we don’t fly?  This is truly an innovative benefit.
Ten years ago, when we created A+ Rewards, we heard from our frequent fliers that they wanted to go have the option to go to exotic destinations.  So since we didn’t fly to these places (yet), we started buying tickets on other airlines to get our best customers to the places they have dreamed about.  Just this summer, we have sent passengers to London, Paris, India, China and Thailand, to name a few.  Of course, then there is Hawaii, Montana and other places, too.
While 95 percent of our frequent fliers who redeem a reward choose to stay 'online' with AirTran Airways, about 5 percent of our frequent fliers use the option to go 'offline.'  Better yet, we add their frequent flier number to the free ticket that we purchased for them -- so, in essence, they can earn Delta Sky Miles for the trip to London or Northwest WorldPerks for the trip to Tokyo on the ticket AirTran Airways purchased for them.  Truly innovative.
Our goal is to keep our frequent fliers happy.  After all, a happy frequent flier keeps rewarding the airline with his/her business."

Hutcheson was frank in his response to our blog, but we sought further clarification -- which he promptly responded to via e-mail. You be the judge if a takeover by AirTran would be good for Milwaukee frequent fliers:

OMC: To fly to Europe using your frequent flier program requires 100 credits, or 50 round-trip flights.  By comparison, Midwest Airlines (through Northwest) requires 50,000 miles.  If an average flight is about 1,000 miles, that comes out to be 25 flights (fewer if you're flying to the West Coast, for example).  If I'm reading this correctly, AirTran's program requires approximately double that of Midwest's to book a free international flight.  Is that accurate?

Hutcheson: As for our international award at 100 credits, keep in mind that one can fly to any point in the world on the international award -- not just Europe.  Remember we are buying tickets on other airlines so there are no capacity controls -- we just require a Saturday night and an advance notice for purchase of tickets.  We also include your other airline frequent flier number so you earn mileage credit on the free ticket which AirTran Airways purchased for the traveler.  The traveler can accrue mileage credit and enjoy the free travel.  This is truly innovative.  As for Midwest’s award on Northwest for 50,000 miles, we both know that these tickets are highly capacity controlled and difficult to redeem.  It is like comparing apples to oranges because you are comparing a European award at 50k miles on Northwest to an international award at 100 credits on AirTran Airways valid on any airline.  We have bought tickets on many different airlines.

We have many frequent fliers who redeem one-ways (8 credits).  It is an innovative feature that we offer.  Some people fly one-way and some buy a one-way and use their credits for a one-way return, for example.

OMC: It appears that AirTran has a credit card arrangement with Juniper Bank (the same as Midwest's).  That program talks about earning points, but it's a little difficult to see how points translate to credits.  As best I can tell, 1,000 points equals one credit.  So to earn a round-trip flight, one would have to charge $16,000 on the AirTran card?

Hutcheson: We do use Barclays Bank (a.k.a. Juniper Bank), as does Midwest.  The formula for earning credits is $1 charged equals 1 point unless you are buying AirTran Airways travel, which is $1 charged equals 2 points.  1,000 points equal 1 credit in the program.   The good news is that we use the same bank so we do not anticipate that conversion will be an issue.

OMC: On that note, how would you envision converting Midwest miles if your acquisition is successful?  

Hutcheson: It is too early to determine how we would ultimately convert Midwest miles into AirTran credits.  Rest assured that any decision concerning conversion will be equitable for the frequent fliers.
OMC: From your Web site, it appears that A+ credits expire after one year (while Midwest's never expire, as long as you continue to accrue them).

Hutcheson: AirTran Airways credits are valid for one year from date of issue.  It is truly a frequent flier program.  Once a traveler has enough credits for a reward, he/she may request a voucher which is valid for one year.  So, in effect, one could have two years to use the free ticket.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.