As you’ve probably heard by now, Southwest Airlines has made a $1.4 billion cash-and-stock offer to buy AirTran. (The rumors that Southwest would buy SunCountry didn’t pan out.) I’ll leave the financial analysis to others. The market went nutso today though, with Southwest going up 8.7% and AirTran going up a whopping 61.3%.
So what does this mean to you, whether you fly Southwest, AirTran, or neither?
- More open seating, more coach, fewer first class seats, and tougher upgrades elsewhere?
Southwest seating rules will prevail, which means a victory for the open-seating model. AirTran will lose assigned seats and its first class. Those first-class seats were rather inexpensive, compared to other airlines’ products, which will disappoint some premium travelers out there. And the network effects of that loss of first-class seats? Demand for first-class fares on other carriers might go up as a result, making your upgrades harder to clear. Hey, it’s a theory.
- Bag fees take a well-deserved beating.
Southwest has vowed to remove checked baggage fees on AirTran, post-merger. Spreading the gospel of no- or low-fee travel is a good thing. (And given Southwest’s recent advertising of its baggage policy, I think they’re committed to it.) This won’t kill the concept of bag fees, but it might make them less socially acceptable.
- This is about Atlanta and Washington.
When organic growth slows, or the barriers to entry in a new market are great, buying a local rival becomes more attractive, and that’s what happened here. AirTran has been successfully carving out a piece of the Atlanta market from Delta for the past few years. For Southwest fliers, you’ll (finally) be able to fly to Atlanta without having to change to a different airline. This deal also brings Southwest to Washington-Reagan National. If you fly into either of those cities, you’ll see a bit of fanfare over this deal, and likely some fare sales to kick things off. You may see counteroffers, like double-mileage promotions from Delta in ATL, US Airways at DCA, etc. But over the longer term…
- Fares? A wash, for now.
Yes, there’s a “Southwest effect” on fares, but it’s particularly pronounced when Southwest enters a new market, bringing low-fare competition to the legacy airlines. In this instance, AirTran has already warmed up the market. So for now, we shouldn’t expect any macro-level discounting. If anything, we might see fares go up in the long term if Southwest retires some of the AirTran capacity. But that’s not going to happen overnight.
- This takes Southwest international, but it’s not a big deal.
Yes, it’s international, but it’s not like this takes Southwest to Tokyo and Sydney. If Southwest keeps the AirTran routes, you’ll be able to fly Southwest to Cancun, Montego Bay, and Punta Cana. For those who have avoided Southwest because their travel plans (and frequent flier redemption goals) take them to other hemispheres, you’ll still be out of luck, for now.
Any other thoughts on Southwest and AirTran? Any predictions on how this will affect your travels, on a post-merger Southwest or anywhere else? Hit the comments!