Southwest Uses AirTran to Grow Flying in Memphis

Southwest’s latest schedule is out, and guess who is paying attention to Memphis? It’s not technically Southwest yet, but Southwest is using its AirTran subsidiary to add destinations and flights in Memphis. As one airline fades in the land of Elvis, another grows. The circle of life continues.

Back in December, I profiled the remains of Delta’s hub in Memphis which now has fewer than 100 flights daily. At the time, I said the cuts “should open the door even further for someone like Southwest to come in and bring fares down.” And that time has now come. Like a vulture feasting on the carcass of a rotting corpse, Southwest sees opportunity in the remains in Memphis. I don’t doubt that’s the case.

Southwest Airlines Memphis Belle

As of this summer, AirTran had scheduled only 4 flights a day between Memphis and Atlanta on 717 aircraft. In other words, it’s great if you want to get to Atlanta and you aren’t time sensitive. Sure, there are some connecting options, but it’s a very minimal presence. That changes on August 11 when AirTran adds 1 daily to Orlando, 1 daily to Baltimore, and 2 daily to Chicago/Midway, all with 717s. This looks a lot like a Southwest schedule, doesn’t it?

That’s why I was a little surprised to see this flown by AirTran, because it fits quite nicely into the Southwest service pattern. But now I get it. First, Southwest and AirTran just started limiting codesharing. It will be up and running soon on the rest of the system. So Southwest can really use AirTran as a trial balloon. Think about it. It can put a smaller airplane (717) into these markets so it has fewer seats to fill. Oh, and it can charge bag fees and change fees as well. So putting AirTran in this market lets Southwest test the waters to see if these routes are going to work out or not.

It would seem likely that they would work. Delta still has up to 3 daily mainline airplanes flying from Memphis to Orlando so that appears to be a good market. And while Delta doesn’t fly to Midway or Baltimore, it does fly to O’Hare and National. Still, the real point is that AirTran can connect people into the Southwest network at both those points anyway.

I would assume that this is just the start of what we’re going to see happen in Memphis. As Delta kills off its presence there more and more, that provides opportunities for others to come in. And while I don’t expect to see Memphis grow to the size of Nashville for Southwest, I imagine this is just the first of several new flights that the airport will see. Southwest doesn’t have a ton of growth opportunities in the US, so this should be a welcome one.

So will this now please all the locals in Memphis who crow about how awful and expensive Delta is? Nah. This gets those people to a few more places, but it’s not going to solve all their problems. It will, however, be very interesting to check in with them in 5 years to see if they’re happier at that point. They might have lower fares on some routes but they’ll have fewer nonstop destinations. We’ve seen this play out in many cities around the US.

By that point, I imagine Delta will have little more than flights to other hubs in the Delta system. But will others have replaced it with enough service to please Memphians? We’ll find out.

[Original Memphis Belle photo via Richard A. McGuirk /]

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