Since AirTran was swallowed up by Southwest Airlines last year, it seems to have fallen off the radar of many TICKET readers. To get caught up with what’s up with Atlanta’s second largest carrier, we scored an interview with AirTran president Bob Jordan. Take a read through the Q&A and you’ll learn why the transition from AirTran to Southwest is moving so slowly, what Southwest loves about AirTran, plans for a combined loyalty program, an update on wi-fi availability, and what business travelers should like about Southwest.
Q: What’s the current status of the integration of AirTran into Southwest? Are you pleased with the results of the purchase so far?
A: The integration is progressing well and has been successful because all of our employees have stepped up to make it happen. AirTran’s corporate culture focuses on providing great customer service, running a great operation, and offering low fares, which are obviously things Southwest is very passionate about as well. So it was a great fit. We are very pleased with the purchase so far, and are very excited about the future.
Q: Do you still think that AirTran is a viable brand? Why or why not?
A: Absolutely – just look at our record 84.2% combined [Southwest + AirTran] load factor we experienced in August! We would not have hit that milestone without AirTran’s exceptionally strong performance. This is a successful company that fits well within our philosophy and business strategy. You know this in Atlanta and so do we — AirTran has a loyal customer base, and we want to continue to earn their business while growing the Southwest brand at Hartsfield-Jackson and giving them more itineraries.
Q: What is (or are) the most important lesson(s) you’ve learned from AirTran? From a consumer perspective, is there anything that AirTran did or does better than Southwest?
A: The biggest difference between the two airlines is obviously AirTran’s international service. What better way for Southwest to expand into international service than to bring in-house an entire company that has done that successfully? AirTran has launched several new international routes to new destinations in Mexico. Customers are responding well to new leisure markets that connect Orange County with nonstop service to Los Cabos, and we now offer nonstop flights from both San Antonio and Austin to Cancun. Mexico City is also a new AirTran destination and we’re carrying a lot of business customers there with daily flights from both Orange County and San Antonio. For now, these flights are under the AirTran brand, and we intend to keep it that way through the integration. But eventually, all international routes will be flown under the Southwest brand. By 2015, Southwest will be offering international flights from a new facility at Houston Hobby airport and it will be easy for Atlantans to plug into that as well.
Q: How many AirTran jets have been converted into Southwest jets? What’s the schedule for conversion?
A: These conversions are more than just repainting, so it takes some time. So far, we’ve converted eight of about 50 AirTran 737-700s and that will continue at a very measured pace (one or two each month). It is important to us that we do this in the right way with the right timing. The brand conversions will unfold route-by-route, so customers could see a gradual shift in current all-AirTran routes to mixed AirTran and Southwest service, and eventually all Southwest service. But we are talking in terms of years, not months. We’re aiming to the have the vast majority of this done by 2015.
Q: When do you think the AirTran brand will disappear completely? Why not just integrate operations, paint the planes and be done with it like other airlines have done in recent mergers? What’s the value in keeping AirTran around for so long?
A: It’s hard to know at this point, a lot of factors will determine that. The key thing to remember is that with the AirTran purchase, we didn’t cherry-pick a failing airline to scoop up and rescue. We found a successful partner that provides Southwest with the ability to serve markets we’ve wanted to serve for a long time, such as Atlanta and the international markets. Because we have been historically a domestic carrier, we couldn’t immediately transition all AirTran service to Southwest. Even if we could, it still wouldn’t have made sense. AirTran is successful, provides great service and low fares, and that allows us to integrate in a way that is not rushed or hurried.
Q: Is it smarter for a frequent traveler in Atlanta to choose Southwest or AirTran when they both serve the same route– such as ATL-LAX or ATL-SFO (which started Sept 30)?
A: Loyalty points easily flow back and forth between the two brands, so there is no advantage to taking one brand over the other. We’ve seen Southwest customers transferring points to fly in Business Class on AirTran’s international flights, for example. And we are seeing a lot of AirTran customers engaging in Rapid Rewards by converting their banked points for Southwest flights, remembering that Southwest offers six times as many flights every day as AirTran. While we don’t have a firm launch date yet, work is underway and eventually there will be a single loyalty program with every bit of AirTran-earned credit available to use in a larger Southwest Airlines.
Q: How do you think business travelers will react to not having AirTran’s business class on long haul flights like ATL-LAX or SFO?
A: Southwest has a great product for business travelers and has built a lot of loyalty within the business sector over the years. In fact, Southwest carries more domestic business travelers than any other airline. Southwest offers low last-minute (walk-up) fares, which we know business travelers are much more likely to use. We’ve seen a great response to our Early Bird product, where travelers to pay a $10 fee for early boarding privileges.
We are making some additional changes in the cabin to improve the business customers’ experience on Southwest. For example, we continue to install wi-fi on Southwest aircraft and have been offering an introductory price point of just $5 per device—good for all-day access. People love it. We now have more than 320 wi-fi enabled aircraft with our satellite-based technology that will be a brand differentiator for us as we expand our horizon. We’re now providing pre-trip emails letting our customers know that their flight has been scheduled with a wi-fi equipped aircraft. We are purposefully deploying those aircraft on longer flights so passengers can be productive in the air. We’re also testing live streaming TV onboard these aircraft and have seen positive customer reaction so far. I am confident AirTran’s best customers will see the benefits of flying Southwest, but we have to be sure we clearly explain all that it offers so that those customers will make the transition.
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