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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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