|by Jason Steele|
Update: You can now book flights to and from Atlanta on Southwest. Non-stop destinations include Houston, Austin, Chicago, Baltimore, and DENVER! These appear to be Southwest operated flights, not codeshares with Airtran.
It has been a long time coming. For years, I have been hoping that Southwest, my favorite airline, will eventually fly to Atlanta, one of my most frequent destinations. As an “Atlanta Refugee,” I still take the time to visit my old stomping grounds, just preferably not during their excruciating summer months of April-October. I exaggerate, but not by much.
Anyways, Southwest’s first attempt at dipping their toes in Atlanta came three years ago when they announce their intention to buy Frontier Airlines, which offered a few flights a day between Denver and Atlanta. That deal fell through, and Southwest regrouped and later announced their intent to purchase Airtran, which is the #2 carrier in Atlanta, after some other airline, I forget which. That deal has been consummated, but the forces of Southwest have been looming at the edge of Hartsfield-Dead Mayors International Airport like General Sherman before the Battle of Atlanta (this is what you get from reading a snarky travel blog post written by a history major).
Let The Battle Begin!
Ever since the completion of the paperwork, Southwest has been biding its time, seemingly hoping for an smooth and orderly assimilation of the Airtranians (I am also a science fiction fan). My sources indicate that, after some silence on the subject, Southwest will announce this week that service to Atlanta will begin on February 12th. This information is corroborated by the presence of Atlanta on their online route map as well as a destination guide for the city. It is unclear if this service will be on Southwest planes (likely), just an Airtran codeshare (less likely), or some combination of the two (possible as well).
What is clear is that this will be an epic battle between Southwest and That Other Airline with a hub in Atlanta. I expect this battle to be waged on many fronts. There will, of course, be credit card offers galore, with lots of promotions targeted to Atlanta based fliers. Frequent flier points and miles will be handed out like Halloween candy, and people watching television in Atlanta can expect to see more airline advertisements than a well funded political campaign.
Who Will Win?
Delta’s business fliers who reach Medallion status are intensely loyal to their carrier, despite Delta’s recent boneheaded moves. They enjoy non-stop flights to obscure destinations and first class upgrades. Sure they pay an arm and a leg to fly Delta, but who cares when you can just expense it. Those traveling on their own dime to domestic locations are going to love Southwest. They offer more leg-room in coach than Delta, and two free checked bags. While their Rapid Rewards frequent flier program does not offer the possibility of as many flights to exotic destinations, it can make more sense to redeem awards for many short flights to nearby cities, a wasteful use of Delta miles. Finally, the huge Southwest advantage is in their no-change fee policies. For example, I will probably book Southwest flights to Atlanta when they go on sale, knowing that I can change the dates around and use the purchase price of my tickets as a credit towards any other flight. Delta charges a $100 change fee for that privilege. While most airlines charge these fees, Southwest’s lack of fee really makes Delta seem like they are ripping you off for no reason other than that they can (a common thread when complaining about Delta.)
In the end, there will probably be a stalemate. Delta will enjoy the patronage of business travelers and those transferring from Moscow to Managua. Southwest will capture the leisure market for people like me traveling between Denver and Atlanta. Prices will continue to stay low from Atlanta to all Southwest/Airtran destinations, and if Altantans are extremely lucky, Delta could decide to compete with Southwest by lowering some of their fees. Expect many of these fee waivers to be granted to holders of their Amex Sky-Miles cards. The 21st century Battle of Atlanta has begun, and it Southwest will not have it as easy as Sherman did.