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Southwest and AirTran Quietly Begin Codesharing

It has been more than 2 years and 4 months since Southwest announced it would purchase AirTran. Since that time, the two airlines have operated as completely separate entities in the eyes of travelers. That is finally changing as the airlines have mercifully begun codesharing, although so far only with a very limited test that the airline isn’t talking about.

As reported by ch-aviation, Southwest has put its code on AirTran flights from Atlanta to both Ft Lauderdale and Ft Myers. AirTran has its code on flights from Atlanta to Louisville and Norfolk. I asked Southwest’s PR team for details and was told that it’s just a test and more information will be forthcoming in mid-February. If all goes well, it will roll out fully by April. Without any official info, I had to dig around to try to piece together the story.

It appears that you can’t buy nonstop flights on the codeshare. It only works on connections. You can, of course, purchase directly through the airlines, but you can also buy AirTran codeshares on Southwest through travel agents online and off. Here’s what it looks like on the Southwest site.

Southwest AirTran codeshare

Now, this brings up all kinds of questions, and it’s bound to be confusing to loyalists of either airline. Basic pricing seems to be the same whether you buy from AirTran or Southwest, but there are so many differences in the business model that things get very confusing, very quickly.

Bag Fees
Southwest lets you check two bags for free while AirTran charges like nearly everyone else. So which bag fee applies? It seems that the bag fees of the airline through which you buy the ticket applies. That’s right. You could buy an itinerary on AirTran.com and pay bag fees. But you could buy the exact same itinerary from Southwest.com and pay none. What’s more, you check in with the airline that operates the flight.

Think about that. You might buy from AirTran and show up at the AirTran ticket counter in Ft Lauderdale and pay the bag fee as usual. But then you might buy the same ticket from Southwest. You still show up at the AirTran counter but you won’t be charged a bag fee. The assumption is that the counter agent knows where you bought your ticket, but is that really also going to be the case for skycaps as well? Having just spoken with some AirTran reservations agents (see below), I’m skeptical that this will be enforced properly, at least initially.

The good news here is that your bags will be transferred between airlines. That means we can now say something that I never thought I’d see – Southwest is interlining!

Where You Should Book: Southwest

Seating
As we all know, Southwest doesn’t have assigned seats while AirTran does. And though AirTran assigns seats, the airline charges if you want a seat assigned in advance. So how does this work? Well, it’s a two-step process. For the flight you have on Southwest, you still check in 24 hours in advance as you normally would. You’ll get a boarding card and it’ll work like normal.

But what about the AirTran flight? Well, if you buy on AirTran’s website, then you can just buy a seat assignment for a few bucks as you would today. (There is no charge for Business Class seat assignments.) If you book with Southwest, it simply says you “will be assigned a seat and will have the opportunity to change the seat once you arrive at the airport.” I assume this means that you get a random seat, and it’s unclear to me if you’ll know what it is in advance. If you can find out and you don’t like it? Well, you can’t change until you get to the airport – not even when you check in. That is unfortunate.

Where You Should Book: AirTran

Business Class
AirTran has a Business Class cabin while Southwest is all coach. So how does that work? Well, it sort of works now that Southwest has Business Select.

I couldn’t get answers despite the PR team’s efforts, but the Southwest reservations agent I spoke with said if you buy a Business Select ticket, you get Business Class on AirTran. The fares are the same for Business Select via Southwest and Business Class via AirTran, so that seems like it should be true. And I have to assume that they just cap Business Select at 12 on AirTran flights since there are only 12 Business Class seats instead of 15 as they do on Southwest flights. The agent also said that if you buy Business Class on AirTran, you get Business Select on Southwest.

Wanting to confirm, I called the AirTran reservations line to make sure that was correct. Apparently nobody told the AirTran folks how this all works. The first person told me that if you bought a Business Class ticket on AirTran, you get coach on Southwest. I asked about Business Select or priority boarding and she had no idea. She said it was just a coach seat. Right, but…. So I called back and the second guy said that Southwest and AirTran don’t codeshare. Oh boy. I see where this is going. I gave up.

But it seems to me that the original Southwest agent got it right. The only thing I couldn’t figure out is whether you can change your seat assignments in Business Class on AirTran if you book via Southwest or if it’s like coach where you can’t.

Where You Should Book: Tie (with possible edge to AirTran)

So there you have it; the codesharing has begun. This should allow Southwest to more efficiently schedule aircraft and start mixing the AirTran and Southwest fleets more. (I doubt we’d see AirTran expanding in Memphis without this on the horizon.) But definitely be careful. The business model differences may make things a little more confusing. Hopefully we’ll learn more soon when Southwest starts talking about this.

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