Southwest’s Uniquely Customer-Friendly AirTran Merger Plan

Today is Valentine’s Day, so how about a little LUV story? One of the things about Southwest’s takeover of AirTran that I like the most is the transition plan. The way it’s being done is incredibly customer-friendly, and it’s likely to have a very minor impact on travelers, unlike what happens in most mergers. That is probably because the Southwest/AirTran merger is completely unique in how it’s proceeding. In other words, no other mergers could use this plan.

AirTran Becomes Southwest

What’s so unique about this merger is that AirTran truly is disappearing. This isn’t a “merger of equals” or anything else like we’ve seen in other big mergers. This is Southwest taking AirTran and turning its assets into Southwest. Because of that, the transition can occur much more easily. Effectively, this is how it will work.

Southwest has already started slowly canceling AirTran flights and re-creating them as Southwest flights. For example, today, AirTran operates three flights between LA and Atlanta while Southwest has none. Flash forward to a Tuesday in September and there are now three daily flights on Southwest as well as one single redeye on AirTran. So Southwest replaces the AirTran flights and has the ability to grow a little as well.

If you fly on an AirTran flight, you’ll get the AirTran onboard product. There will be business class, assigned seats, bag fees, etc. If you fly on a Southwest flight, you get the Southwest product with open seating, all coach, and no bag fees. Over time, all the AirTran flights will disappear and the Southwest flights will be the only ones to remain.

It seems so simple, and really, it is. Southwest has dramatically reduced the number of AirTran flights starting this summer (from 680 daily departures on a Friday all the way down to 568). This will allow the airline to start pulling out airplanes from the AirTran fleet to send them through the car wash where they’ll come out looking exactly like Southwest airplanes inside and out. At the same time, crews will begin coming over from AirTran to Southwest. They’ll get training and will be assimilated into the Southwest operation.

If you’re a cook, it’s like slowly adding an ingredient and mixing as you go instead of just dumping everything in at once. It just makes a lot of sense to do it that.

So why can Southwest do this so effortlessly and the others can’t? Because the other mergers are completely different animals. Whether it was America West/US Airways, Delta/Northwest, or Continental/United, these were all true mergers in the sense that they took bits and pieces from each other to create the new combined airline. Think about the harmonization of the frequent flier program as just one piece of the pie. There isn’t one airline that stays the same in these mergers, but there is in the Southwest/AirTran merger. AirTran is effectively disappearing and will leave barely a trace, and that allows Southwest to gradually phase it out without making any big changes to the surviving operation along the way.

I’m not exaggerating when I say tat AirTran is disappearing. According to Southwest spokesperson Chris Mainz, “we haven’t announced or decided on anything concrete that we plan to pull over from AirTran and incorporate into Southwest.” There will be some things behind the scenes that need to come over. For example, Southwest isn’t capable of flying internationally but AirTran can. That not a customer-facing issue, but it is something Southwest will need to incorporate behind the scenes to allow it to fly internationally. That’s why I imagine that toward the very the end, AirTran will just be a collection of international flights and redeyes, the two things that Southwest doesn’t do today. (Southwest has said that some limited redeyes are likely to come over.)

In the meantime, Southwest and AirTran continue to operate separately with Southwest getting bigger and AirTran getting smaller. There are efforts to connect the two systems with codesharing, but Southwest’s technology team is the hold-up. It can’t codeshare yet, despite years of trying. The plan is to have that up and running sometime in the near future, and that will make it easier to transition AirTran out slowly without completely killing the feed in the Atlanta hub.

Meanwhile, Southwest is doing what it can to relocate AirTran flights to be near Southwest in airports around the US so they can operate together, even as they continue to operate as two separate airlines.

[Original Southwest photo via Flickr user fdenardo1/Original AirTran photo via Flickr user PhillipC/Original Car Wash photo via Flickr user Ralph Hockens/All via CC 2.0]

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44 Comments on "Southwest’s Uniquely Customer-Friendly AirTran Merger Plan"

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Sanjeev M
Guest

Yes Red-eyes!! Finally Southwest has realized that 25 airplanes doing red-eyes won’t affect the whole operation.

I think WN also realizes its costs are high, and so it will wring as much of the bag fees from AirTran customers as it can, and claim they’re still “AirTran flights”. Not nice for the people in ATL. (Although I honestly think every other person in ATL has a Delta Skymiles Amex Card with first bag free and etc…)

Jason H
Guest
I feel bad for AirTran loyalists. They lose what they have come to value and WN goes on believing they are the chosen carrier that does it all right. The arrogance of it drives me nuts. I have finally flown on WN this year and can categorically say I will not fly them again unless there is no other choice. I didn’t like AirTran, but they were palatable compared to my experience on WN. On the other hand, for the WN loyalists this is good news. They get red-eyes, international flights, and the like. So good for them, and likely… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member

WN should have been ramping up their computer system years ago to be in the 21st century. Plan ahead for the day you might need something. Did they think they could do with AirTran what they did with Morris Air?

Tim
Guest
It really is a unique merger. Is there precedent for anything like this? The problem I foresee with this approach is it creates confusion over brand/schedule for passengers. If you want to fly ATL-LAX in September you might go to airtran.com and think you only have an option of one flight. If that flight doesn’t work with your schedule you’ll keep moving. What if you want to combine an AirTran flight outbound with Southwest returning? What if the AirTran flight cancels and you want to be protected on the Southwest flight leaving 2 hours later? AirTran has added one daily… Read more »
AbFabSkyLife
Guest
Well nobody said it was going to be perfect. But remember splitting the brands is not a long term solution – it’s a band-aid while the two products are being combined. The Austin-Houston route is in support of new Air Tran international service to Mexico. That single route is designed to keep the system congruous, not necessarily to pack the flight with Air Tran brand devotees. People booking on southwest.com may not know to check Air Tran for that single flight, but people booking through their GDS or on Orbitz or Travelocity will see an Air Tran flight where they… Read more »
JM
Guest
CF, I get that you are applauding the transition plan per se, but there are plenty of gambles for Southwest in the merger strategy. Southwest will no doubt do a good job of selling its very competent economy class product here in Atlanta, but the decision to ditch AirTran’s business class is causing a lot of grumbling here among loyal AirTran business travelers. Apparently, Southwest is banking on the belief that AirTran customers will fall in love with Southwest’s product over the one which AirTran is offering today. I think that’s risky and a that good many higher-fare, loyal AirTran… Read more »
Diego
Guest

Does anybody know why southwest doesn’t offer red eye flights? I’ve often wondered this myself. Is it something with the unions? I know the reason for no international flights is becuase they’re technology can’t handle it.

TxCoon
Guest

A lot of the airports Southwest serves have curfews which restricts redeyes.

Rohit Rao
Guest

This merger has been anything but “customer friendly” – just like pretty much every other recent merger that has occurred. The merger has meant higher fares, product devaluation, etc. Nothing unique, but to call a merger “customer-friendly” seems rather oxymoronic.

Bill from DC
Guest

sure this is interesting and all but i can’t wait to see what CF has to say about the newest incarnation of People Express based out of, you guessed it, PHF!

Nick Barnard
Member

Are they putting the 717s through the Plane Wash as well? or are they going to operate them as ValuJetAirtran until the day they hand them back to Boeing?

Jim
Guest

So just wondering, if they are slowly making AirTran disappear and absorbing the planes into Southwest, why do they need to get a single operating certificate from the FAA? Why can’t they just transfer everything over to Southwest and then abandon the AirTran certificate and be done with it?

Nick Barnard
Member

I’m a layman who doesn’t know a huge amount of this, but I’m guessing that they’re going to go for a single operating certificate because of the 717. I’m guessing its easier to take the documentation and operating regulations that AirTran has for the 717s on their certificate and merge them onto a single operating certificate, than it is for Southwest to build and develop their documentation and operating regulations on the 717.

Although, this does bring up the interesting question on the ex-AirTran 737s getting the Southwest software for the instrument console. Welcome back to the steam gauge age..

DesertGhost
Guest

That’s one looooooooooooooooooooong airplane going through that plane wash.

Nick Barnard
Member

Its probably the invention of Willy Wonka.. At least Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka.

DesertGhost
Guest

Not only is the plane long, it apparently gets repainted as it goes through the plane wash. Boy, I could make some serious bucks if I could invent a machine that could do all of that.

Eric the Italian Guy
Guest

Love the graphic! Looks like the long awaited 737-1400EEELLLRRR NG

Bill from DC
Guest

LOL! no, seriously, i did!

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[…] The CrankyFlier, which is a popular blog run by self-proclaimed airline dork Brett Snyder, wrote on February 14, 2012: “This isn?t a ‘merger of equals’ or anything else like […]

BDJ
Guest
Perhaps Airtran should disappear. Here’s why: AirTran airlines has a a really obnoxious policy that if you are flying business class on the first leg of a flight, your bag is checked free. But if you are flying business class on only the second leg of the flight, you must pay $20 like everyone else. So many times the first leg has no upgrade availability because most people that fly the two leg flights understand the system. But the upgrade is usually available on the second leg out of Atlanta. So, if you have a voucher for a business class… Read more »
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[…] to get worse as Southwest continues to integrate Air Tran.   That’s because Southwest is slowly integrating Air Tran aircraft into the Southwest fleet which means that Air Tran awards and f… because Southwest doesn’t fly to Mexico, Central America, or the […]

Sue
Guest

Tell me….what happens to the vouchers issued after our nightmare flight on Air Tran? We received one round-trip to us within a year. Should they merge completely during that time and the name changes to Southwest, will they still honor our tickets?

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