Lexington hopes for Southwest service after airline buys AirTran

jhewlett@herald-leader.comSeptember 28, 2010 

Southwest AirTran Buyout

Bob Fornaro, left, chairman, president and CEO of AirTran Airways, and Gary C. Kelly, who holds the same titles at Southwest Airlines, appeared at a Dallas news conference Monday to announce Southwest's plans to buy AirTran Holdings Inc.

JIM MAHONEY — AP

Southwest Airlines announced Monday its intent to buy low-cost competitor AirTran Airways — and Lexington officials hope that planes bearing the Southwest logo could be flying in and out of Blue Grass Airport soon.

The $1.4 billion cash-and-stock deal would put Southwest into Atlanta's huge Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, expand its markets in the Southeast and along the Eastern seaboard, and move the carrier closer to going international. If debt and aircraft operating leases are included, the deal is worth $3.4 billion.

AirTran has had a presence at Blue Grass Airport since February, offering flights between Lexington and Florida. Southwest already is a major carrier in Louisville.

Lexington airport officials have been pleased with the passenger counts on the AirTran flights to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, particularly those during the summer when the planes were more than 80 percent full, airport executive director Eric Frankl said Monday.

Southwest is interested in serving most, if not all, of AirTran's markets, Southwest spokeswoman Ashley Dillon said Monday.

"Nothing will change at all until we receive regulatory and other approvals, including from the Department of Justice," AirTran spokesman Christopher White said. He said those approvals aren't expected until mid-2011.

"It's premature to speculate what will happen to any particular route or pricing," he said.

Darlene Silvestri, one of the owners of Avant Travel in Lexington said, "The more service we have, the better it is for the city."

"The interesting thing would be is that Southwest does not charge for bags," she said, adding that AirTran does charge for luggage.

"I think it's (no baggage fees) something that passengers would find attractive."

Southwest's intent is that baggage fees would not be charged on any flights. Also, there would be only one class of seat, as Southwest has now. AirTran offers two classes.

"We would plan to continue with the Southwest brand image and our product offering," Dillon said.

Terry Wollison, regional manager of The Travel Authority, said she hopes a combined airline would not pull out of Lexington.

She said she'd like to see Southwest-AirTran offer service between Lexington and Atlanta.

"That would be the real goal. Delta's got a corner on that market," she said. Historically the fares from Lexington to Atlanta have been high for business travelers, she said.

When AirTran entered the Lexington market with flights several times a week to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale earlier this year, Blue Grass Airport officials expressed hope that the flights would be successful enough that the carrier would decide to add flights from Lexington to its Atlanta hub, which connects to more than 50 cities.

"Right now their service is doing well here. Hopefully we'll retain or grow it," Frankl said.

AirTran's service from Blue Grass Airport to Fort Lauderdale was halted Aug. 11 because of an expected seasonal slowdown in air travel but is to resume Nov. 3. Service to Orlando on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays has continued.

The AirTran Florida flights and service to Florida by low-cost carrier Allegiant have helped bring down fares from Lexington to the Sunshine State overall, according to Blue Grass Airport officials.

"I think they're definitely more competitive than they were," Wollison said.

Southwest is a major presence at Louisville International Airport, and it has lured travelers from Lexington with its low fares.

Southwest offers 17 daily non-stop flights from Louis ville to eight cities: Baltimore; Birmingham, Ala.; Chicago; Las Vegas; Orlando and Tampa, Fla.; Phoenix and St. Louis, Dillon said.

Wollison said she hoped the acquisition would mean that fewer people would be driving to Louisville to catch a Southwest flight.

McClatchy News Service contributed to this article.

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