On December 28, 2014, AirTran flight 1 departed Atlanta for Tampa, retracing the airline’s first flight and bringing an end to its remarkable history. I had the honor of being on that last flight and I am excited to share my story. But before I discuss the end of “the big little a” I’d like to first revisit the airline’s history. Because only through knowledge of the airline’s legacy can we truly understand the significance of AirTran’s retirement and integration into Southwest Airlines. So sit back, relax, and enjoy.
ValuJet: Fun and friendly… And perhaps a bit dangerous.
AirTran traces its roots back to ValuJet, an Atlanta-based upstart with dreams of chipping away at Delta’s dominance right in its own backyard. Operations commenced with just a single DC-9, and its first flight was from Atlanta to Tampa on October 26, 1993. In just over a year the airline was solidly profitable and its route map had grown to 17 cities. But fast growth and aggressive cost-cutting practices quickly caught up to the Critter (ValuJet’s FAA call sign.) In the first few years of operation, the small airline had a markedly-high percentage of emergency landings, compared to its peers. In addition, an FAA study indicated that ValuJet dominated the accident data for low-cost carriers.
On May 11, 1996, ValuJet flight 592 went down en-route from Miami to Atlanta; all 110 on board were lost. This tragic, high-profile accident would focus attention on the airline, its maintenance practices, and ultimately lead to its grounding. After a month of investigations by the FAA, which reveled “serious deficiencies in its operation” ValuJet would voluntarily halt operations. But this wasn’t the end for the fledgling airline that had lost its way. Instead, it was just the beginning.
AirTran: It’s something else… Really!
ValuJet never recovered from the stigma left by flight 592, so the airline sought a new brand to compliment its renewed commitment to maintenance and safety. That new brand already existed as a much smaller Florida-based regional airline named AirTran. In September of 1997, the overhauled ValuJet renamed itself AirTran and announced an order for 50 MD-95s (which would later be renamed the Boeing 717 as MD was folded in to Boeing) with options for 50 more. Later that year, ValuJet’s buyout of Florida-based AirTran Airways would close. In January of 1999, AirTran would receive a new senior leadership team comprised of industry veterans Joe Leonard (of Eastern Air Lines) and Robert Fornaro (of US Airways.)
In the following years, it became clear that from the ashes of ValuJet rose a Phoenix, an airline stronger, safer, and more respected than its predecessor. In March of 2000, AirTran received the FAA’s Diamond Award, the agency’s highest maintenance certification. In the years between AirTran’s transformation and the buyout by Southwest, the airline had few incidents, none of which resulted in casualties.
Your Airline has Arrived… Acquisition by Southwest
In September of 2010, Southwest Airlines announced they would acquire all outstanding shares of AirTran’s parent company, and closed the purchase eight months later with a final purchase price of $1.4 billion. In the following years, Southwest would orchestrate one of the smoothest airline integrations in history. Rather than attempt to join the two companies through a “best of each” approach, which looks great on paper but rarely goes well (see United/Continental), they would methodically replace AirTran planes, crews, and routes with their own. Legacy AirTran 737s would be reconfigured and re-branded, and legacy AirTran crew, retrained and in most cases, given a more generous compensation package. AirTran’s Boeing 717s would head to Delta, on lease from Southwest.
Paying special attention to the hazards mergers pose with culture, Southwest launched its “One LUV” initiative to introduce employees of each airline to the other and welcome the AirTran family into Southwest.
Over the next three years, Southwest would wind down the company leading up to the final day of revenue operations for AirTran: 12/28/2014.
Final day of AirTran operations
Sunday, December 28th was a long day. It began with a Southwest flight to Milwaukee to meet with various operations crew from the combined airline prior to catching the last AirTran flight out of Milwaukee down to Atlanta. In interacting with the employees, some legacy AirTran, others legacy Southwest, it was clear that the cultures of the two airlines complimented one another well and by now had had a chance to integrate. After a quick tour of Milwaukee’s operations (more on that later) we boarded N717JL, a 717 dedicated to Joe Leonard, and hopped down to Atlanta where the party was already underway.
Upon exiting the plane I entered an Atlanta I’d never seen before. Music was blaring, beverages flowing, people dancing, hugging, and kissing. The mood was incredibly upbeat. Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines as well as Bob Jordan, President of AirTran Airways, freely walked about the terminal shaking hands and posing with any and all who wanted selfies (you know I got one with Gary!)
In Atlanta, the celebration focused intensely not on the end of AirTran, but the beginning of a fully integrated Southwest and it seemed all in attendance were fully on board.
After a quick 90 minutes on the ground in Atlanta, it was time to re-board N717JL and fly to Tampa on AirTran’s final flight. The party was so loud (in a good way!) and the terminal so crowded that I missed the boarding call. It took some time to navigate my way to the gate and by the time I’d arrived they were boarding group 6; I was in group 1. The plane was nearly empty once I made it on board, so it was clear I wasn’t alone in missing the call to action. Southwest knows how to throw a party, perhaps too good of a party.
Upon boarding, I couldn’t help but stick my nose in the flight deck. AirTran’s final flight was piloted by Floy Ponder, the company’s chief pilot who has 19 years tenure with AirTran.
I was surprised and excited to see that during the layover each seat was adorned with final flight gifts to include a SouthwestHeart magnet, AirTran model, and $100 Southwest gift check.
Each of the 117 seats on the plane would ultimately fill, and at last check there were over 700 standby passengers. Likely not in an attempt to get a seat, but to obtain a security document to join the party at the end of C concourse.
I would soon find out that the majority of passengers on fight 1 were current and former employees of AirTran anxious to be a part of history and send AirTran off into the sunset. The plane was pushed back from Atlanta’s C concourse and received a double water cannon salute as well as an escort to the runway threshold.
Once in the air the champagne flowed freely. It was great to hear all of the current and former employees reminisce about the earlier years. One theme rang true, they’d been through so much, and were so incredibly proud of the airline they had built. Now more than ever I saw the clear correlation between the two airlines’ cultures.
Most, albeit not all, were happy with the merger. “Bittersweet” was a common answer when asked for their opinions. I’ve been through my fair share of mergers so I can absolutely understand how there could be some residual dissatisfaction. After all of the work the employees invested in AirTran’s incredible turnaround, I can sympathize with those saddened to see the airline in its entirety destined for the history books. But from a business perspective a clean break truly is best for integration, else “us vs. them” mentality edges into culture.
One passenger, a former AirTran pilot who sat in my area was particularly vocal about his opposition to the integration. He ultimately protested by taking his services to a competing airline which was likely a great move for him, as well as the (then) newly merged company. In my experience negativity only festers personally and can sometimes spread. It’s an unfortunate fact that post-merger companies aren’t for everyone, and it takes a strong employee to recognize the need to be successful elsewhere. Bob Jordan, AirTran’s president said a number of times over the course of the evening, “Today is not about celebrating the end of AirTran, it’s about two great companies coming together and moving forward, as one.”
What felt like the quickest flight ever ended in Tampa with the pilot announcing, “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to Tampa, and the end of an era.” We quickly taxied to the final gate an AirTran revenue flight would approach and with that, it truly was the end of an era.
As a Southwest fan and avid AvGeek it was a sincere honor to have had the opportunity to experience this important part of airline history as it unfolded. I never had much of an opinion of AirTran one way or the other, but after spending the day with AirTran’s people I became a fan. I am confident the now-unified Southwest will go on to do great things, but a little part of me will miss what everyone so affectionately referred to as “the big little a.”
Please share your AirTran experiences (good or bad) in the comments. Go. There’s nothing stopping you.
Disclosure: A portion of my travel was provided courtesy of Southwest Airlines. My opinions are always my own.