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AirTran Fans Petition Southwest to Save Biz Class

A group of loyal AirTran flyers have put together a petition begging Southwest to retain AirTran’s business class seating, assigned seating, and several other perks. The name of the group says it all: AirTran SOS. The SOS stands for “save our seats,” and, clearly, is a cry for help.

Here’s what this group wants:

Southwest Airlines: please combine the best of the Southwest world with the best of AirTran.  Keep the Southwest fun spirit, free checked bags, no change fees, and great Southwest brand.  Just save AirTran’s assigned seats, business class seats, in-seat Wi-Fi / XM Radio, and frequent flyer seats to anywhere in the world!  SOS: SAVE OUR SEATS!

First, a quick note: Southwest is well into the process of installing Wi-Fi on its entire fleet, though it will be years (mid-2013) before that is complete. But AirTran customers will enjoy a more affordable experience than they’re used to, as Southwest is charging a flat $5 instead of AirTran’s $4.95 to $12.95 per flight. Southwest’s Wi-Fi plans have not been a secret, so it’s odd that it’s included in this group’s demands.

As for the rest of AirTranSOS’ requests, namely the plea for business class, I have a feeling the group will be disappointed. Southwest simply isn’t going to retain AirTran’s business class. At Southwest’s Media Day, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly was adamant that Southwest plus AirTran does not equal some blend of the two airlines (SwairTran?). It equals Southwest, just bigger. It’s an acquisition, remember? “We have a brand,” he said, striking a defiant tone, “and we’ve long held out that we’re not all things to all people.”

Translation: Love it or leave it.

When you think about it, the idea really isn’t practical. AirTran has 138 aircraft in its fleet. Southwest has 544. The expense of adding business class to 544 aircraft while simultaneously renovating AirTran’s 138 planes with Southwest livery and seating would be astronomical. Southwest would be foolish to undertake such a project, which would fundamentally change its brand and its very successful business model, to appease a relatively small group of AirTran customers.

Same goes for assigned seating, even though it would be easier to implement. But Southwest would probably say it already has several forms of assigned seating, what with its Business Select fares, A-List status, and EarlyBird check-in. AirTranSOS suggests having half the plane assigned while keeping the other half open, but this idea represents the polar opposite of Southwest’s “keep it simple” approach. Not happening.

However, none of this is to suggest this “relatively small” group is meaningless, or that the issues raised aren’t serious. Quite the opposite, actually. The AirTran deal is largely about Southwest making a sudden, big splash in Atlanta, where it will compete with Delta. This means a significant factor in Southwest’s success will be its ability to grab a share of the business travelers flying into and through Atlanta. Alienating AirTran’s business travelers will not make this any easier, and Southwest knows there is a very real risk of losing these customers.

So you can bet Southwest will push hard to convince AirTran’s business travelers to stick around. The question is: How does Southwest retain these travelers even as it downgrades their flight experience? Southwest will heavily market its baggage and change fee policies, and probably remind AirTran customers that Southwest’s coach product is roomier than the one they’re leaving behind. Also look for Southwest to revamp Rapid Rewards, though it’s not clear what impact this would have, considering Southwest can’t offer upgrades.

In fact, it’s not clear what effect any of this will have, and I feel sympathy for AirTran’s loyal road warriors, who are forced to make a pretty poor choice: Get onboard with Southwest, or get onboard with someone else. There’s a lot to like about Southwest, but when you’re flying a few times a week, sometimes nothing matters more than a quiet refuge in the front of the plane.

Readers, do you think AirTran’s business travelers will jump ship?

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