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

AirTran, Southwest

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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44 comments on “Southwest Decides Which AirTran Cities Make the Cut as It Adds Seats

  1. Interesting that they are re-fitting the 717’s even though they do not intend to keep them for the long haul. I guess they want them branded Southwest and it would not make sense to put in old-style seats or re-use old ones so they don’t have to purchase new ones for those planes.

    Unless they plan to get the vast majority of growth with international expansion (similar to Spirit), they will need to make those smaller markets work and grow. Although they already do not like the 717’s, they can learn a lot about small aircraft operations and switch to an aircraft over time that better meets tgeir economic and operational needs.

  2. Most of the 88 717s inherited in the AirTran acquisition are under leases that begin expiring in 2017. I would say some of those smaller cities are safe – for now.

    1. Do you know if Southwest managed to or wanted to try to renegotiate the leases, especially since many of them were from Boeing (iirc)? If they did, especially considering their order for 737NGs, the 717s might disappear a lot sooner than 2017.

      1. I’m sure that Southwest could get out of them earlier if it wanted. Boeing will bend over backwards to make Southwest happy. Maybe, however, Southwest is happy keeping the fleet going for a few years to help with the longer term transition, but I don’t know for sure.

  3. As for Dayton, it is a pretty big operation for Airtran with 8 departures a day. People in SW Ohio have been driving up to DAY to escape the Delta monopoly at CVG. In the era of ridiculousness in the ’90s and ’00s many people from Cincy would drive up to DAY and take a 20 minute Comair RJ back to CVG and on to their destination and in the process save $800 on a round trip.

    In my mind the real question is where will the SWA flights go? All to ATL?

    1. That would surprise me if they all went to Atlanta. Southwest doesn’t really operate that way. I’d bet on Chicago and Baltimore as well. Maybe some Florida?

  4. Just because they named a lump of cities to vanish, well that AirTran (wink wink) will drop doesn’t mean they are done cutting cities. WN said in the beginning they would keep all AirTran cities except DFW so they have to keep their word. So until the AirTran names drops for good, AirTran can cut more cities.

  5. Seattle is the first to convert, but LAX is very close — all but one of the AirTran flights become Southwest, the exception being the redeye to Atlanta. I would guess that’s because Southwest doesn’t do redeyes? I wonder if that will eventually change…

    Also, didn’t Southwest serve White Plains way back when?

    1. I believe it was on the earnings call that Southwest said it anticipated having a very small number of redeyes come into the operation. I wonder if that requires some work with the pilots first.

      As for White Plains/Westchester, no, Southwest never served it.

  6. While Flint is economically depressed, northern Oakland Co. south of Flint
    is better off and many people from there fly from Flint in order to avoid
    the crowds and hassle of driving to Detroit Metro. It will probably work out
    for Southwest at the Flint airport.

    1. Precisely. The northern Detroit suburbs (where the money is) in areas like Auburn Hills and Troy are a straight-shot 45 min on I-75, actually closer than DTW. Additionally Flint is small and easy to operate out of. My guess is that Southwest will connect it to closer hubs like BWI, MDW etc and drop ATL.

      My guess is the rich people in HPN are tied to their FF miles and JetBlue so Southwest didn’t see a future.

      Harrisburg is too close to Baltimore (80 miles) and so WN would have had to feed another hub like MDW or BNA, which are too far. So might as well drop it and let everyone drive to BWI.

      I thought fares were so high in HSV that Southwest might stick around. I can see Spirit picking up some of these small markets 2-3 weekly. Key West staying was a big surprise.

      I’m also interested in the MKE/MDW adjustments. CAK-MDW is just the beginning. I hope that WN moves the important stuff to MDW, the less important stuff to STL/MCI and drop MKE to a “spoke”. This gives Frontier a little break as well, but WN probably doesn’t want that.

  7. Nice to see CAK not only survive but also gain flights to MDW, despite WN already flying multiple CLE-MDW flights.

    BUT HOW LONG DO I HAVE TO WAIT FOR DCA-MDW? SORRY FOR ALL CAPS BUT THIS SHOULD BE THE BIGGEST NO-BRAINER IN THE HISTORY OF EARTH!!! These were probably the only ATA flights in the history of that airline that were always full!

    1. Don’t worry. It’ll come soon. They’re making another announcement first week of February. DCA-MDW should come sometime or another.

      However, do note that yields from DCA drop when connections are involved. From what I’ve seen, west coast and Texas fares are usually the same from DCA/IAD/BWI but flying within the east BWI is clearly cheaper.

      1. based on full flights from DCA-MDW on ATA, i am guessing WN will be able to fill those seats primarily with O&D traffic, with the best prices on connections and available from BWI and IAD (especially connections over MDW).

    2. A full flight does not mean a successful flight, but I would imagine that National to Midway will happen. I don’t know the full details, but I wonder if there might be an issue of transferring slots at National to a different certificate. Anyone know?

  8. SDFers are trilled to see competition to ATL. I had a hunch that this was on the radar when they announced SDF-BHM was getting the ax. DL has had a strangle hold on the market since the mid 90s when VJet collapsed. (I do not count > than daily Vision as viable competition, sorry) It will be interesting to see how DL protects its turf in SDF and DAY. It may serve as a template for their overall ATL defense strategy.

  9. I think another interesting question is who replaces the service that is lost post merger integration? I suspect that BWI may lose some flights from a regulatory perspective where there is a lot of overlap (BOS for example). Does JetBlue fill some of that void? Will we see Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant attempt to enter markets where there was a large combined SWA/AirTran presence?

    1. BWI is not slot controlled, and frankly there are plenty of gates in the D Concourse for anyone who wants to start flights. Combined with other DC area airports and Amtrak/Megabus/Boltbus the Feds probably don’t see an issue.

      On the route side, Frontier has mentioned several times it wants to consolidate at DCA. BWI-DEN is probably not worth it to Frontier to open a station. Spirit might, but it’s probably content with DCA. BWI is not an Allegiant type market. Jetblue will not increase BWI-BOS as its already a bloodbath with way too much capacity even with just E190’s. B6 also now has DCA-BOS, and the longtime IAD-BOS.

      Many people have noted that US Airways is a brutal competitor for WN at PHL and PHX. The same holds for the DC area. Loads of loyal US FF’s will fly them at DCA and even take an ungodly early morning (5am) BWI-CLT to connect to the morning bank @ CLT.

      1. yeah, BWI is wide open in the older concourses, D is a ghost town, no regulatory issues there. in fact, if you wanted to start new service or increase service to BWI, they’d probably throw in a year’s worth of landing fees to seal the deal (especially if you were starting something international).

        DCA pxs’ US loyalties are partially due to people in the District, Arlington and Alexandria who would rather connect over CLT than drive to IAD to get a west coast nonstop (especially during rush hours).

    2. AirTran consolidating at the SWA concourse has contributed to the empty gates. My question was not specifically geared toward BWI, although I think it is the most apt example. Will other airlines attempt to fill in some of capacity lost post-merger integration?

  10. Regarding EVOLVE: Can someone please explain to me how putting more people into the same volume of space increases their comfort level ? This does not pass the sniff test.

    1. The theory is that the seats themselves are narrower, so each seat+person takes up less space, while the passengers get more spaces that used to be used up by larger seats.
      While it’s true that you can put in narrower seats for more space, they are noticeably less comfortable imo.

  11. I think the average consumer won’t think much of the EVOLVE seating or even notice that there is an extra row of seating.

    Theoretically an inch of pitch has been lost but with the slimmer seats I’m guessing that they give about half an inch back for a perceived loss of half an inch which is pretty negligible.

    Smart business decision on Southwest’s part.

    I’m interested to see the EVOLVE product on the 717s and if they’ll squeeze in any more seats or not. I also wonder if the EVOLVE product will allow them an extra row of seats on the -800s than the number previously announced.

  12. I think Southwest is telling porkies on this, at least to some extent – while fuel prices may put some marginal flights in the red, oil prices have been in a fairly narrow trading range the last few months: $95-105/bbl for WTI, and the spread beween WTI and Brent has narrowed.

    Sarasota-Bradenton* isn’t a surprise to me – when the merger was first announced, I predicted SRQ would eventually get the chop. TPA is a big station for Southwest, and SRQ’s catchment overlaps with Ft. Myers to the south as well. Travelers in Sarasota and Manatee counties are used to driving to Tampa or Ft. Myers.

    It’s going to be a big problem for SRQ, AirTran makes up almost a third of our traffic and if we can’t find alternatives, we run the risk of going into an Ontario-like “death spiral”, where each flight dropped makes the airport charges for the rest more expensive, and thus more likely to be chopped…wash, rinse, repeat.

    Westchester doesn’t surprise me either – small station, no growth opportunities.

    Key West surprises me, too, but the 717s aren’t going away immediately and I guess EYW has enough of a fare premium to make it worthwhile, for now at least. I do expect Southwest to eventually choose a replacement for the 717s that will let them serve smaller cities economically.

    As for the “Evolve” (and yes, I refuse to capitalize it) seating – ugh.

    * – C’mon, don’t feed the inferiority complex we Bradentonites have…it’s not “Sarasota”. Half the airport is in our county. :-D

    1. Believe it or not Craig, Airtran uses their 737-700’s into Key West as the 717’s do not have the oomph to take off on such short runways. That does mean they are payload/range restricted and can only fly a full bird as far as Orlando and Tampa. Delta’s nonstop 737-700 service to Atlanta can only have some many people because of it.

      Initially, I believe Southwest thought a smaller plane, the 717, meant lower costs and the ability to serve markets slightly smaller than they do today. However once they were handed the keys to the Airtran fleet, they figured out that as a cost per seat per mile and maybe a few other metrics, the 717’s were about the same cost as the 737-700. That is probably why Airtran ordered the 737-700 so readily. Their replacement will likely be a 737, same as always. Even on Jetblue’s E190, their CASM is about 13% higher than on the A320.

    2. Airtran has been flying 737s to Key West for Tampa and Orlando destinations. I think there is a problem landing the 717s in Key West. Something about the short runway. The 737s have to fly in with a light fuel load.

  13. Another really interesting thing about FNT (and GRR) is that Southwest does not fly LAS – DTW non-stop. Its one of the very few stations that do not have a non-stop to LAS. With Delta and Spirits lock in at DTW, its been hard for Southwest to make a name for its self at DTW. FNT makes the “alternate airport” argument for Southwest in the Michigan market. FNT is an hour from Ann Arbor, 45 min from north Oakland county, and hour from Downtown Detroit. The funny thing is, I would say the farthest thing from FNT in the Detroit Metro Area, is in fact, DTW.

    And as someone else mentioned the commute from FNT to Oakland County is easier than from DTW.

  14. And Cranky, Rochester NY should not come as too much of a surprise. With about 1m in the metro area and a fairly large high tech base, they should be in the no-brainer catagory, especially as they have enough demand for FL to fly to BWI long before Southwest took them over.

  15. What amazes me most about the new seats is that they’re refitting 372 planes in 21 months, for about 18 planes per month. I’d’ve figured they would have waited for the D-checks or somewhere around there.

    1. No heavy check needed…can be done overnight with a team of mechanics. Check youtube for a video of the change out.

      1. Changing seats can be donne overnight, but you have to also consider all documentation and weight and ballance issues which have to be done also if seats are changed.

    2. This isn’t the kind of thing you can do slowly. In order to actually sell those extra 6 seats, you need to have it on enough of the fleet that you can guarantee that each flight will definitely have 6 extra or not. So going slowly doesn’t make sense because they can’t sell during the transition.

      1. @Chris Do you have a link to a video of the changeout? Searching YouTube didn’t yield any.

        @CF True, I figured they weren’t saying it was about that extra row, so they could not sell them for quite some time, then just use them for reaccommodation if necessary once the exact plane was assigned. I figured since they’re using their existing seat base that it’d take a bit longer, but I figure they’ve got a few extras of the seat base that they’re using to seed the replacement process.

  16. For Dayton, keep in mind that the wealthier neighborhoods in Cinci metro tend to be around or just north of the beltway, with a straight shot up I-75.

    Dayton is as convenient or more convenient for many people in that area than CVG. Not only is CVG in Kentucky in the middle of nowhere, but it also requires passing through/by downtown Cinci and crossing a large river (bridges can get jammed up at times). For morning flights especially, traveling to DAY from the northern Cinci suburbs is at least as fast as going to CVG, if not faster, and eliminates the hassle of dealing with Cinci rush hour traffic and the bottlenecks on the river. It’s also far more predictable and reliable.

    Finally, CVG is a ghost town and a pain to fly in and out of… The airport is in the middle of nowhere, all the gates in use are on the far side of security (I want to say that the terminal closest to security isn’t even used much), and so on, not to mention that you can’t leave CVG these days for under $500.

    As much as I’d like to see some lower cost airlines come to CVG, I think DAY is a very worthy alternative, and a better option for many people in the Cinci metro area.

  17. Has Southwest made any official statement regarding the future of free SiriusXM satellite radio? Im hoping against odds they keep it; I really enjoy and use it often on my FL flights

      1. Well jeez, that sucks. So much for the notion of “combining the best from both airlines.” Why WN has such a hatred for even the most basic IFE is beyond me.

  18. You forgot Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX, and Washington-Dulles! Remember?! At first, Southwest said Dallas/Ft. Worth was the only AirTran-only airport Southwest said they would not keep! As for washington Dulles………well……….I’d guess they don’t really count because Southwest already flies out of there.

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