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Southwest Decides Which AirTran Cities Make the Cut as It Adds Seats

While I was off, Southwest made a couple of interesting moves worth talking about. By far the most interesting to me was a decision on which AirTran markets stay in the system and which ones disappear. (You can also see full schedule changes for the summer.) Instead of leaking it out in dribs and drabs, a tactic for which I chastised them previously, this time they put a big lump announcement together.

When I wrote about the last route announcement which axed more small cities, I listed 8 AirTran cities which I thought should have been concerned about their future. Looks like I was about half right. Here’s a map with all the cities that won’t make the cut.

The Losers
The ones that will be going are Allentown (PA), Harrisburg (PA), Huntsville (AL), Lexington (KY), Sarasota (FL), and Westchester County (NY). The first four were on my list, and I had no doubt at all about Huntsville and Lexington. Allentown and Harrisburg were a mild surprise: I thought one would stick around, especially since Southwest has been getting its clock cleaned in Philly. I figured one of those cities might be a good add to the network, but I didn’t expect to see both. But it’s the last two cities that caught my eye.

Sarasota and Westchester were bigger surprises. Sarasota is a highly seasonal market, so maybe Southwest couldn’t find a way to properly serve it year-round, but I imagine it’s a good market in the winter. It is just 50 miles south of Tampa, so I suppose Southwest can leave it to airlines that are better capable of serving the market.

In Westchester, AirTran only has five flights a day there with two to Atlanta, one to Orlando, and one on the blue hair express down to West Palm Beach. Southwest wouldn’t be able to get more slots there, so it would be tough to run a Southwest-style operation. The model is further challenged by the fact that the airport handles all customer service, so Southwest couldn’t have its own people. (Southwest says that’s not why the airline backed out, but it had to be a factor.) Other airlines will be more than happy to snap up those slots in what is a strong market serving a very rich clientele.

The Winners
But what about the cities that are staying? That’s an interesting story. I said Branson (MO), Pensacola (FL), Portland (ME), and Rochester (NY) should be concerned, but they made the cut. I shouldn’t have been surprised by Branson since Southwest already announced AirTran would start Baltimore flights from there. I’m sure Southwest is getting a hefty subsidy, clearly showing this isn’t your father’s Southwest that only flew to markets that worked on their own. (The same goes for Wichita, which will be keeping service thanks to continuing what appears to be a perpetual subsidy.)

Pensacola surprised me because when it started Panama City service, Southwest agreed to pay a penalty if it started to serve Pensacola because of its proximity. Could the market be so good that it’s worth paying the penalty? Or maybe Southwest renegotiated that deal?

What else is staying? Well, there are the obvious ones. Akron-Canton (OH), Des Moines, Washington/National, and most of the international cities are sticking around. Southwest has already made it clear that these would be staying through various previous route announcements.

Then there are the mid-size cities that Southwest has previously avoided. Charlotte and Memphis are the most notable here. Southwest should serve these cities, though I don’t expect an enormous operation at either, at least not at this point.

That leaves us with Flint (MI), Dayton (OH), Richmond (VA), Key West (FL), and Grand Rapids (MI). These are a mixed bag. Dayton seems to be the closest Southwest wants to get to Cincinnati for now. Grand Rapids and Richmond are decent-sized places that might generate enough demand for a small operation. Flint and Key West are head-scratchers, however.

Flint isn’t very far from Detroit and it’s not exactly an economic powerhouse. Seems like a stretch to me. And Key West . . . if Sarasota can’t survive then I’m surprised Key West can. These just seem like markets that can barely sustain a minimum level of Southwest service, at best.

EVOLVE Seating
And that leads us back to the other big issue recently . . . Southwest and its seating. Last week, Southwest made a big deal about how it was putting new seating into its airplanes. It hailed the change as a “new era of customer comfort and sustainability.” There’s even a name for this change – EVOLVE – and yes, it’s written in all-caps. Give me a break.

I haven’t had the chance to try these seats, but they are thinner, and they use more environmentally-friendly material. They will, however, also recline less than the existing seats, and they’ll be moved closer together – enough to allow another row to be added to the airplanes. I have to reserve judgment on these since I haven’t sat in them to see if they truly are comfortable or not, but the way that Southwest is promoting this as the greatest thing since slice bread certainly is a turn off. And it’s the same strategy Southwest has used for most announcements. (Remember the new Rapid Rewards rollout? Bleh.)

Southwest EVOLVE Seating

More importantly, however, is that this shows the continued upgauging of Southwest. The 737-700s will now have 143 seats. The airline is focusing its future orders on 737-800s with a lot more seats than that. It has already said it doesn’t see much of a future for the 717. So how is Southwest going to really serve some of these smaller cities with only large-scale airplanes? It seems like there’s a disconnect here.

There’s no question Southwest can adequately serve some of the larger AirTran cities, and it will likely come up with a good model for serving the international destinations as well. But I think Southwest is going to have a tougher time serving some of these smaller cities unless it really decides to shake up the way it operates. I just haven’t seen any kind of indication from the airline that it’s going to do anything radical like that, so we’ll just have to see if some of these smaller cities can actually survive.

[Original EVOLVE seat photo via Southwest Airlines]

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