Southwest Brings Its Airplanes to Atlanta for Valentine’s Day

Southwest’s acquisition of AirTran made a little news yesterday when it was announced that Southwest would bring its own airplanes to Atlanta starting on February 12. That’s just in time for the LUV-iest day of the year, Valentine’s Day. We’ve all gotten used to watching mergers unfold over the last couple of years, but this one is really being handled differently. If I’m reading this right, then I like the game plan here. Let’s see if you agree.

Southwest Swedish Chef

Beginning on February 12, Southwest will launch flights on top of the AirTran flights that already exist in four markets while adding one new one. Here’s how it’s going to look.

Destination AirTran
daily flights
daily flights
Austin 0 2
Baltimore 4 4
Chicago/Midway 4 4
Denver 2 2
Houston/Hobby 3 3

This all seems funny, right? I mean, Southwest will bring its own airplanes into Atlanta just as it would in almost any new city. The pattern of connecting a new spoke to its largest operations has been done time and time again. The only difference is that Southwest now owns AirTran, an enormous airline in Atlanta, yet it’s just going to sit on top of AirTran and run a parallel operation. Why would it do that?

Let’s think about how Southwest is approaching this. In Delta/Northwest and United/Continental, those airlines have both pitched this as a sort of “merger of equals” type of thing. Two great airlines come together to make one. Blah blah blah. I’m going to turn into Julia Child for a minute and look at this in cooking terms, because for some reason that’s the analogy that came to mind. Then again, I know nothing about cooking. Let’s go with the Swedish Chef.

Say that United is made with recipe U and Continental is made with recipe C. Both are recipes for airlines, but the ultimate goal is to improve them together to create a better, single airline with recipe UA. To get there, you put pieces of recipe C into recipe U and pieces of recipe U into recipe C to bring them closer to each other. But you also improve on both by adding extra ingredients until they’re both that same new recipe UA. It’s a relatively slow process, but it’s been time-tested.

With Southwest/AirTran, it’s different. Southwest is the dominant carrier, and it’s trying to get AirTran to conform to the Southwest standard, ultimately possibly taking bits and pieces from AirTran, but only around the edges.

To do this, Southwest sticks with recipe S for its product, and it tries to take AirTran’s recipe A and turn it into recipe S without much disruption at all. How does it do that? It starts with a big batch of recipe S and slowly stirs recipe A into it so that it dissolves. That’s what I think is happening here.

Southwest is bringing recipe S into Atlanta with this new service starting in February. This is the core Southwest-style operation that will form the basis of the combined airline. Slowly, we’ll see new routes brought under the Southwest name while routes slowly disappear from the AirTran brand. I imagine eventually we’ll see AirTran stop serving these (and all other) cities and the service will be consolidated under Southwest. Slowly AirTran cities will be brought into the Southwest family or they’ll disappear (as has already happened to Asheville, Atlantic City, Moline, and Newport News). Over time, Atlanta will be all Southwest, but the transition won’t happen overnight.

I bet we don’t see Southwest simply paint over the ticket counters one night in Atlanta. Instead, we’ll see Southwest get a larger and larger presence as AirTran gets smaller and smaller. Eventually, AirTran will just disappear once the entire fleet has been brought under the Southwest brand.

To be honest, I think that’s a smart way to handle this kind of merger. There’s no reason to just throw it together at once and call it the same name. Do it slow, and do it right. With that in mind, there are some things that need to be done quickly, and Southwest is addressing them.

As part of this announcement, Southwest also said that it would offer reciprocal elite status in the two frequent flier programs. So if you’re elite with AirTran, then you’ll get A-List status with Southwest and vice versa. CEO Gary Kelly also said today that codesharing between the two airlines would begin in the first half of next year. So you allow people to freely use either brand and get the same benefits while the AirTran brand still exists.

I like it. Now, whether or not Atlanta will work in the Southwest system is a whole different question. I actually have a guest post coming up on that topic soon.

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