AirTran Airways, a subsidiary of Southwest Airlines, announced Monday, Feb. 4, that it is adding four new Memphis flights to three new AirTran routes. And Memphis International Airport officials said they were told by Southwest executives last week that all AirTran flights in Memphis probably will be converted to the Southwest brand by November.
“They’re able to start more AirTran service here in August rather than wait until a complete Southwest brand offering here, which will occur in November,” said Larry Cox, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority. “This gives us more new air service earlier and better fares and a great opportunity to get people prepared and ready to support the Southwest brand.”
Cox and Airport Authority board chairman Jack Sammons met with Southwest executives last week. He and Sammons said they weren’t told then about the specifics of the Memphis moves but were encouraged. And the broader move to switch AirTran flights to Southwest service just before the end of the year was tentative but expected.
“It depends on what happens next week and next month to the economy,” Cox said. “Their plan is that they want to ship all of the AirTran to Southwest and November is what they are looking at.”
Sammons said Cox deserves the “rusty fish hook award for hanging in there … trying to court this girl to the prom for 20 years and it’s finally paid off.”
As the Airport Authority took fire on several civic fronts for not being aggressive enough in recruiting competition for Delta, Cox said the nature of the airline industry and winning expansions of service on a long-term basis comes through the building of long-term relationships over years.
Sammons described frequent flyers in the area as “hungry for affordable flight options.”
And he added Southwest executives told him they will be watching market demand for the options closely.
“The airlines have the ability to measure performance almost on an hourly basis. They can define profitability on a per seat basis. Those guys track that daily,” Sammons said adding he was told by Southwest executives that, “The more tickets your passengers buy the more flight options that we’ll provide down the road.”
The new AirTran service that begins in August is twice a day between Memphis and Chicago Midway, once a day between Memphis and Orlando and once a day between Memphis and Baltimore/Washington D.C.
The new Memphis service begins Aug. 11, the same day that Southwest converts AirTran service in Grand Rapids, Mich., to the Southwest brand and opens Southwest nonstop service at the Flint, Mich., airport.
Bishop International Airport in Flint currently has AirTran service, which will be converted to the Southwest brand in April.
The first August Memphis to Chicago Midway flights added to the AirTran schedule Monday morning were priced at $125 for a 5:35 a.m. flight and a 6:42 p.m. flight for $142.
A flight to Orlando later in the week was priced at $96.
The service under the AirTran brand is the first expansion of its service at Memphis International Airport since Southwest Airlines bought AirTran in April 2011 as a wholly owned subsidiary.
AirTran currently has five daily non-stops between Memphis and Atlanta. That is up one from the number of flights before its acquisition by Southwest was announced.
Southwest executives said last summer they did not anticipate converting the Memphis International Airport AirTran operation to the Southwest brand in 2012 as they work through a two-year integration. But Southwest also said Memphis is one of 53 cities where it intends to switch the AirTran flights to Southwest service at some point.
The new Memphis AirTran service comes after Delta Air Lines, which has a hub at Memphis International, has cut its service three times in two years and comes just days after regional air carrier Pinnacle Airlines Corp. announced it was moving its headquarters out of Memphis to Minneapolis. Pinnacle will be moving to vacant space in Minneapolis leased by Delta, which is expected to make Pinnacle a subsidiary once Pinnacle emerges from bankruptcy reorganization.
The AirTran announcement is the first expansion of air service by Delta rivals announced since US Airways announced expanded service between Memphis and Washington a year ago this month. The service began in March.
Since then, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell have intensified the local effort and pointed it more aggressively in the direction of recruiting domestic air service competitors of Delta.
Before the US Airways expansion of service, Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority board members approved a $1 million pool of incentive money to draw more air service as the Delta cuts continued.
Also since the US Airways expansion, Airport Authority board chairman Arnold Perl resigned and the board elected Sammons as its new chairman.