Monday, September 27, 2010

Transport: Goodbye, AirTran

An AirTran Boeing 717 took off from Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts on 26-September-2006

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today, Southwest Airlines announced that it would acquire AirTran, a rival low-cost airline with a strong network in the east. The move seemed to be mostly about gaining slots at airports like New York's LaGuardia and Washington's National, and according to the merger website, the resulting airline will be harmonized mostly on Southwest's existing practices, such as a lack of baggage fees and no assigned seating. However, it will also mean Southwest flying an airplane other than a Boeing 737 (AirTran has a sizable Boeing 717 fleet) and flying outside the United States for the first time.

There are several potential ironies in Southwest acquiring AirTran. A decade ago, there was potential confusion between two low cost carriers that conceivably could be known as "ATA"--American Trans Air and AirTran Airways. American Trans Air, which formally re-branded as ATA, went bankrupt in 2008 and its remaining assets were purchased by Southwest; now Southwest is buying the other "ATA." Some may also find a certain irony in Southwest, with arguably the best consumer reputation in the United States, acquiring an airline that had to re-brand itself through merger after a 1996 crash marred its image under the name ValuJet. For those who like aircraft call signs, the merger represents the loss of "Citrus" to the less interesting "Southwest"--and some were still mourning the loss of ValuJet's "Critter" to AirTran's "Citrus."

I have flown AirTran only once, from Boston, Massachusetts to Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland for a job interview day trip on 27-January-2004. The day makes for an interesting story, though it has little to do with the airline. The weather was terrible up and down the east coast on that day, and the southbound flight was delayed for ninety minutes because of snow at the destination. Indeed, when the plane landed, the taxiways were covered in compact snow and ice, the first time I could remember that circumstance.

The roads weren't in much better shape as I drove to Rockville, Maryland and proceeded with the interview. On the radio, WTOP was reporting that the Federal government was closing early because of another impending snowstorm. While the interview proceeded uneventfully, I had to borrow an ice scraper to get my rental car in a condition to drive just as the storm moved in and large flakes started falling. I managed to brave the Beltway back to BWI and was relieved to find my return flight still scheduled on time. The initial boarding announcement was made, but then the captain of the flight came out and said that there was no point in loading the plane for two hours since there was no chance of getting de-iced until that time. A quick check of the weather forecast showed that Boston’s airport might be closed by that time as the storm reached New England.

I decided I didn't want to risk being stuck at the airport and called Amtrak. There were seats available on overnight train #66, the Federal. I left the concourse, headed down to the ground transportation area in the airport, took the shuttle bus over to the airport railroad station, and picked up my ticket from the station agent. After about an hour’s wait, I boarded an on-time train and arrived in Boston in the morning, not necessarily having gotten any more sleep, but far more confident that I would actually reach my destination. As it turned out, the flight had left about four hours late, landing in Boston well after public transit had stopped running for the night. I would have faced a taxi ride that would have cost as much as the train ticket.

AirTran left an impression on me mostly for money-saving practices. Rather than getting the traditional airline ticket printed on thick paper stock or even just an e-ticket leading to a boarding pass printed on thick paper stock (the most common scenario in 2004), AirTran had boarding passes printed on the same kind of cheap paper used for grocery receipts--and it worked just fine (the common industry practice has since become to use that kind of paper, but still in the traditional airline ticket shape). Other than the unusual lack of coordination between the boarding staff and pilot that snowy evening, there was really nothing to complain about at all.

Still, with AirTran being acquired by Southwest, the only existing North American airline that I can say has incontrovertibly treated me well on every occasion on 22 flights and counting, it's hard to complain about the merger announced today.

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