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    Southwest Airlines confirms it will take over AirTran service in Memphis
    Friday, January 20, 2012

    By Wayne Risher, January 20, 2012


    Southwest Airlines made it official Friday: It will move into Memphis by taking over AirTran routes serving the city.

    Memphis International Airport officials expected the Dallas-based discount carrier's announcement, but were still happy to see it in writing.

    It was good news for the flying public, which has clamored for Southwest to serve Memphis since the 1980s. Officials and travelers hope more competition leads to lower fares at one of the country's most expensive airports.

    "We've had very good meetings with them, so it's not a surprise to me, but it's always good to hear them say it," said Larry Cox, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.

    The news came in an announcement of cities where the merged carrier intends to convert AirTran service to the Southwest brand.

    It means Southwest will put its logo at the Memphis airport alongside Delta Air Lines, which operates a hub there, and lesser players such as US Airways, American and United.

    Memphis is among 22 AirTran airports that will eventually join the Southwest route map. The carrier said it would drop six AirTran cities Aug. 12: Allentown, Pa., Lexington, Ky., Harrisburg, Pa., Sarasota, Fla., Huntsville, Ala., and White Plains, N.Y.

    AirTran formerly connected Tunica to Atlanta, but the casino-subsidized service folded last spring after one year.

    AirTran formerly connected Tunica to Atlanta, but the casino-subsidized service folded last spring after one year.

    There is no word yet on prospects of Southwest growing AirTran's Memphis presence, Cox said. AirTran operates four flights daily from Memphis to Atlanta.

    Frequent travelers hope Memphis will feel the "Southwest Effect" -- more flying at lower fares.

    "I'm looking forward to it," said Memphis-based contractor Bob Cockerham. "Hopefully there will be more competition for Delta out there."

    Cockerham uses Southwest out of Little Rock or Nashville enough to hold a Southwest Rapid Rewards card.

    He favors AirTran when traveling to the East and Northeast, and he's impressed by their service ethic.

    "They want you to be flying," he said. "It's like they take an interest in you being there."

    "I'm just hoping they'll put in more flights to more places, like Dallas or Baltimore."

    Airport and business leaders view Southwest's arrival as competition for Delta and an opportunity to grow service that has been slashed following Delta's absorption of former Memphis hub operator Northwest Airlines.

    Memphis served 8,737,641 passengers in 2011 -- 1,265,545 fewer than in 2010, a 12.6 percent reduction. The main culprit was Delta's program to eliminate routes that are unprofitable to fly at higher fuel prices.

    Memphis has historically had high airfares attributed to the airport's dominance by one carrier, first Northwest, then Delta. A government report said Memphis' average roundtrip airfare of $476.22 was highest in the nation in three months ending last June 30.

    While airport officials maintain the city enjoys an abundance of air travel options because of the hub, high fares have been cited in at least two instances for dampening economic activity.
    One company said it was moving 25 top executives to Atlanta, to take advantage of better air service, while a folk music convention operator said it was shifting to cities with more affordable fares.

    -- Wayne Risher: (901) 529-2874

    Copyright, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN. Used with permission.

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