With AirTran acquisition, Southwest Airlines is thinking internationally

By Maria Saporta

Expect Southwest Airlines to leverage its acquisition of AirTran by going international.

In a talk Monday to the Rotary Club of Atlanta, Gary Kelly, CEO of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, said the airline plans to not only fly to AirTran’s current destinations but to other places in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and the northern parts of South America.

“Yes, we intend to keep the international destinations that AirTran is currently serving,” Kelly reassured the audience. “The demand for international travel is very, very strong. We think we have a lot of great opportunity to grow internationally.”

Currently, Southwest is entirely a domestic airline. Although it now owns AirTran, the two airlines still flying under their own brands. But that will change.

“Integrating airlines is very complicated,” Kelly said. “We are moving about that process over a multi-year period.”

Early next year, Kelly said both airlines will be connecting their networks, making it easier for customers to travel seamlessly from Southwest to AirTran or vice versa. “Our goal is to have the integration completed in 2014,” Kelly said.

Meanwhile, Kelly had nothing but nice things to say about AirTran, adding that the airline’s employees continue to be devoted to their jobs. And it was thanks to AirTran that Southwest was able to start flying to Atlanta in the first place.

“We probably would not be here in Atlanta if we had not been able to cut a deal with AirTran in 2010,” Kelly said. “You are also lucky to have had AirTran all these years. It has had a strong leadership team; very, very good people; and a different but a very solid business.”

Kelly was introduced by Veronica Biggins, a former AirTran director who joined Southwest’s board about a year ago. “He loves all things Texas but he’s learning to love Atlanta, Ga.,” she said.

In fact, Kelly spoke highly of his experience in Atlanta.

“We are very, very pleased to be here,” Kelly said. “Beyond the AirTran acquisition, the reception we have received from Atlanta is nothing like we’ve ever seen. And we’ve opened up in lots of places.”

Early in his talk, Kelly also vaguely referred to the Southwest’s civic role in Atlanta. Southwest is not expected to be nearly as generous or involved in the community as was AirTran, which had its largest hub in Atlanta.

“ We want to be part of the community,” Kelly said. “We want to serve our communities We are ready to pitch in and help as you all need us.”

Kelly did point out a few other differences between Southwest and AirTran.

“We have opened up a cargo facility,” Kelly said. “AirTran has not carried cargo. Southwest does. You now have that opportunity.”

Southwest also has agreed to sell Delta Air Lines all 88 of AirTran’s Boeing 717 aircraft. That will allow Southwest to have a fleet that is all Boeing 737s. That will allow all its pilots, flight attendants and mechanics to be able to work on any plane in the system, which provides the airline great flexibility.

Kelly was asked about the progress of the integration of the cultures of both airlines.

“It’s like a marriage and trying to bring both families together,” Kelly said. But he said Southwest has always put its people first. “We are the most unionized airline in the country.”

The unions actually negotiated the integration of the two airlines’ workforce.

Lastly, Kelly praised Louis Miller, general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, as well as the airport.

“You have a real gem here,” Kelly said. “It’s well run and has the resources it needs.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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