AirTran Airways which prior to its 2011 purchase by Dallas-based Southwest Airlines was headquartered in Orlando flew for the last time on Sunday. The airline has now been fully integrated into Southwest. The final flight was between Atlanta and Tampa. AirTran’s lower cost structure and non-union workforce has now been integrated into higher-cost and heavily unionized Southwest in a merger that took almost four years to complete.
With a massive hub in Atlanta that was acquired after the ValuJet disaster and lots of point-to-point routes to Florida cities especially Orlando, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Fort Myers, AirTran had a positive impact on the state’s tourism and economy. The low cost structure of the airline made it an attractive option for those who wished to vacation in Florida.
Southwest after acquiring AirTran immediately dropped all service to Miami and subsequently dropped all Sarasota and Key West flights as well. Thus the only new Southwest city in Florida to come from the merger with AirTran is Pensacola, a city that had long courted Southwest service. Southwest has also reduced a number of the routes to Orlando, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale that AirTran flew, some of which previously competed with existing Southwest routings.
When coupled with the recent American/US Airways merger, this consolidation will lead to higher fares and ultimately less flights on heavily traveled corridors between Florida and Northeast/Midwest. The merger-mania in the industry which has increased fares and the cost structure for the largest carriers has led to explosive growth of two “ultra low cost carriers” (ULCC) Denver-based Frontier and Fort Lauderdale-based Spirit.
Both ULCC’s have major operations in the state of Florida and compete on many key routes to key and second-tier destinations in the Northeast and Midwest. As consolidation settles in, it will be interesting to see if the ULCC’s force fares downward in general or if they simply cater to a different type of passenger, those who our state rely on to fuel our tourist industry.