Dive in the dumpster, fly on the plane

Last month I reported on the Wendys/Airtran promo where you earn a free roundtrip ticket for 64 sodas. Naturally, this seems to be leading to a rash of dumpster diving.

    Danielle and a friend spent nearly two hours digging through dozens of grease- and ketchup-smeared garbage bags outside two Manhattan Wendy’s restaurants searching for soft drink cups with AirTran frequent-flier coupons printed on the side.


    In all, the pair collected about 330 cups, more than enough for two round-trip flights for each of them. “It’s pretty disgusting work, especially when you grab a handful of chewed meat,” says Danielle, who asked that her full name be withheld to ensure that AirTran would honor her claim. “But it’s about the only way I can afford to see my family [in San Luis Obispo, Calif.].”


    Some sellers even boast of their foul efforts to obtain the coupons: One eBay seller from Nashville, who sold 65 coupons for $75, prominently featured a photo of the dumpster out of which he’d fished them.


    On Craigslist, buyers are soliciting coupons for upwards of $1.50 each, more than the retail value of a Wendy’s soft drink. “I will pay you to dumpster-dive at Wendy’s,” writes a buyer in Indianapolis. “Looking for about 1,000-1,500 of these, maybe a few more.”


    Brooke Szczepanski, a financial planner from Hayes, Va., admits her obsession with Wendy’s cup collecting. She bought herself and her husband two headlamps and a long grabbing tool to pluck the cups in the dead of night from Wendy’s trash containers. To date, she has collected 2,600 cups and sells them on Craigslist, 64 coupons at a time, for $100.

What does the airline think of dumpster diving and online auctions?

    The company, which has already redeemed an estimated 85,000 coupons, is limiting individuals to two round-trip flights, he notes.


    In addition, the airline anticipated a black market for the promotional cups, Mr. Hutcheson says, but “when we looked at the pros and cons of it, the cost of getting exposure for AirTran outweighed the bad.”


    Wendy’s executives also anticipated coupons would be sold online, but none expected it to reach the levels it has, says Bob Bertini, a company spokesman.


    “Anytime you have a promotion of this magnitude, you’re going to have some challenges along the way,” says Mr. Bertini, adding that AirTran is responsible for handling the redemption process.


    Indeed, Hutcheson warns that AirTran will not honor flight requests for those found to have purchased the coupons online or through any other means than plopping down at least $1.29 for each soft drink. But, he adds, “It’s not easy to prove, it’s not like we’re going to fingerprint every coupon and see if they match.”


    The airline, however, has tried to quell the sale of the coupons through other means. Employees at Wendy’s and its cup manufacturer, Oldemark LLC., are not eligible. AirTran cross-references the names of coupon-redeemers with the employee databases of those companies. The airline has also purchased some coupons on eBay to take them out of circulation, says Hutcheson.

On November 3 I wrote:

    you can’t become the next Pudding Guy (and you won’t get a movie made about your mileage exploits)
And now USA Today writes
    The AirTran promotion has already become the stuff of urban legend, calling to mind the California man who, in 1999, redeemed 12,000 pudding cups for 1.2 million frequent-flier miles. David Phillips, who paid $3,100 in all for the Healthy Choice pudding, became an instant cult hero and was the basis for a character in the 2002 movie Punch-Drunk Love.

You read it here first — by almost six weeks!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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