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Cadillac hopes frequent fliers mean more buyers

As the only luxury auto brand stuck in neutral while the rest of the high-end market is zooming ahead, Cadillac is taking a new approach.

In its latest move aimed at re-establishing itself with luxury buyers, the automaker is partnering with American Airlines on a series of initiatives that target business executives and other wealthy individuals who might not otherwise slide behind the wheel of a Caddy.

Cadillac emblem
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Starting later this month, the automaker will offer 7,500 AAdvantage miles to American Airlines frequent fliers who test drive a Cadillac. The automaker will also have new vehicles on display at certain American Airlines terminals around the country. In addition, Cadillac vehicles will be used to transfer the airlines' most elite passengers between gates at Los Angeles International Airport when those travelers have tight connections.

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Eventually, the American/Cadillac tarmac transfer program will be expanded to airports in Dallas, Miami and New York.

"Partnering with American Airlines, the world's largest airline, allows us to engage customers and deliver valuable benefits in meaningful ways," said Uwe Ellinghaus, chief marketing officer at Cadillac.

On-site airport transfers that drive an airline's most valued travelers across the tarmac from one gate to the next have become an increasingly popular feature. Delta and Porsche, as well as United Airlines and Mercedes-Benz, have partnerships to shuttle select travelers between gates at those airports where they have hubs.

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Cadillac declined to detail how much its partnership will cost the company. Airlines regularly sell frequent flier miles to credit card companies and businesses offering special promotions, typically for 1 to 3 cents per mile. But because there are several components of the Cadillac deal, it is unclear how much the company is paying American for the AAdvantage miles that will be given away.

Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks, a company that tracks airline services and frequent flier programs, said the move is beneficial for both American and Cadillac.

"For American, it highlights the airline as a top luxury brand," he said. "For Cadillac, it helps the brand be seen by elite travelers and every day passengers."

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The move is the latest by Cadillac to try to kick start its brand, which is struggling to attract buyers as its competitors are enjoying strong years. Cadillac sales year-to-date are down 4.2 percent, while BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and Audi are all seeing sales grow between 9 and 16 percent, according to Autodata.

Part of the problem for Cadillac has been on the product side, where new models have been inconsistent. Among entry-level luxury models, its ATS outsells the Audi A3 and Mercedes CLA Class, but sales are still down 20 percent this year. Meanwhile, Cadillac's extended-range electric car, the ELR, has been a complete bust. Just 885 have been sold this year.

Along with its partnership with American Airlines, Cadillac is attempting to re-establish itself with luxury buyers by moving its headquarters to New York.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.