One man's trash is another's free ticket

Danielle is no stranger to diving into dumpsters. "You'd be amazed what they throw away at Trader Joe's, it's like whole meals over there," says the young nanny from the Philadelphia area. But when she heard that the garbage outside Wendy's restaurants had free airline travel in it, "it just seemed too good to be true."

Yet, on a recent icy December evening, 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.]."

Indeed, for a new generation of opportunists, other people's fast-food trash is their treasure.

Under the promotion, Wendy's and discount airline AirTran are offering free frequent-flyer rewards when customers purchase 20- or 32-ounce soft-drinks. Coupons from the side of the cups can be redeemed toward airfare on the Orlando, Fla., airline; 64 coupons are worth a round-trip flight anywhere AirTran flies. Eighty-four million of the cups will be distributed.

Since the promotion was launched in early November, the coupons have become hot-ticket items on auction and clearinghouse websites like eBay and Craigslist. And because AirTran flies from Los Angeles to Boston, even the Bahamas, the promotion has attracted unusually broad interest.

With online sellers generally demanding between $150 to $200 for 128 coupons (two round-trip flights' worth), the coupons represent a considerable savings over buying the plane tickets outright: Two coach class round-trip AirTran tickets from San Francisco to Miami sold recently for $720, for example.

Some sellers even boast of their foul efforts to obtain the coupons: One eBay seller from Nashville, Tenn., 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.

"A free product makes money at whatever price it sells," says Ms. Szczepanski.

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." He estimated he had earned himself more than 30 round-trip flights to Europe.

"That's why we put a limit on the number of flights you can earn," says Tad Hutcheson, AirTran's vice president of marketing.

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.

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