Originally published August 2, 2011 at 7:39 PM | Page modified August 2, 2011 at 9:46 PM

Southwest, AirTran: 2 carriers figuring out how to become 1

Last summer, top officials of Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways were working feverishly in secret to wrap up the myriad details of a major merger.

The Dallas Morning News

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DALLAS — Last summer, top officials of Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways were working feverishly in secret to wrap up the myriad details of a major merger.

This summer, the two airlines may be working even harder.

As difficult as a major merger is to craft, the real work begins after the ink has dried on the contracts and people throughout the merging companies start figuring out how to make one enterprise out of two.

"What you're doing is integrating every aspect of the business from how you board people to how the flight attendants serve them drinks," aviation consultant Darryl Jenkins said. "Do you give them a can? Do you pour it into a glass? There are hundreds of thousands of tiny details like this that have to be examined and integrated, so it's no small task."

And those operational questions "are the easy ones," Jenkins said.

The tougher ones are such issues as how to meld AirTran's hub-and-spoke system focused on Atlanta with Southwest's network, which spreads its operations and connections over many more cities.

"Everything about them is different," Jenkins said. "The cultures of the two companies are different as well. It's literally hundreds of thousands of details that have to be worked on."

Southwest's purchase of AirTran was first broached in spring 2010, with the deal approved by the two airlines' boards Sept. 26 and announced publicly the next day. Southwest closed the deal and took possession of its smaller rival May 2.

Since then, Southwest and AirTran have continued to operate as separate brands and carriers, but employees have begun working the timetable to combine the two.

Southwest executive Mike Van de Ven said that Southwest and AirTran are on target to combine both carriers onto a single airline operating certificate in first quarter 2012, a step that requires Federal Aviation Administration approval.

"Our plan is that once we obtain a single operating certificate from the FAA, at that point in time we'll take AirTran airplanes and convert them to Southwest airplanes," said Van de Ven, Southwest's chief operating officer and an executive vice president. "They'll go from the AirTran brand to the Southwest brand, and we'll begin doing that, we hope, in the first quarter of next year."

The changes so far have been largely invisible to the flying public, but as 2012 approaches, some things will become more evident.

Last week, AirTran and Southwest posted their schedules for early 2012, and the two carriers' listings are beginning to show the results of coordination.

For example, take their schedules between Baltimore and Orlando, Fla., two major cities for both carriers.

Southwest currently operates eight daily flights between those cities, while AirTran operates five. In a change made months ago, Southwest will cut its schedule to six flights next week, giving the two carriers 11 flights combined between Baltimore and Orlando.

In the Jan. 8 schedule changes, the two carriers will still operate 11 flights a day between Baltimore and Orlando. But only two will be operated by AirTran, with nine flown by Southwest.

Van de Ven said an important part of the integration process is understanding how the other side does things and adopting the best practices of either airline. Southwest has already identified some functions at which AirTran excelled, he said.

A major task for the carriers and their employees will be to combine their unionized workforces with as few hard feelings as possible — a difficult task that has hurt other airline mergers.

Southwest may have cleared an enormous hurdle when it reached an agreement in principle with its pilots, represented by the Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association, and AirTran's pilots, represented by the Air Line Pilots Association, on how they would merge their seniority lists and operations. No details have been released.

However, union leaders are still working on the language of that agreement, and it will require votes of approval from the unions' boards and then membership before it would go into effect.

Unions for the largest group of employees, the flight attendants, have yet to begin formal talks. Southwest's 9,700 flight attendants are represented by the Transport Workers Union, while the Association of Flight Attendants represents AirTran's 1,800 flight attendants.

Thom McDaniel, president of the Southwest TWU local, said AirTran's union is going through a process to verify its seniority list, and the Southwest union is preparing for talks Aug. 31.

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