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Airtran Flies into the Sunset

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Airtran Flies into the Sunset

Airtran Flies into the Sunset
June 07
16:06 2016

Published in May 2015 issue

By Jack Harty

Airtran traces its roots back to 1992, when Robert Priddy, founder of Atlantic Southeast Airlines and Florida Gulf Airlines, started working on plans to launch ValuJet, an airline that would offer low fares and try to help fill the void that Eastern Air Lines had left in the southern air travel market when it had gone out of business in 1991. On October 26, 1993, ValuJet flew its inaugural flight (ValuJet 901) from Atlanta’s Hartsfield–Jackson International Airport (ATL) to Tampa (TPA) with 105 customers onboard. Even though the airline helped make flying more affordable for its customers, many did not take it seriously. ValuJet had a cartoon character painted on the fuselage of the aging DC-9s it had acquired from Delta Air Lines (DL), and its orange-and-yellow, all-coach seats were not really appealing to customers. ValuJet based its operations in ATL, where it would have to compete directly with Delta, which had been dominating the region’s market since 1941.

Meanwhile, the ValuJet concept had become very profitable thanks to non-union crews, low fares, high-aircraft utilization, and the subcontracting of most of its operational functions. Many customers embraced them, since its fares were much lower than Delta’s.

ValuJet filed for an initial public offering (IPO) in 1994, and, shortly after, became one of the hottest trades on Wall Street. In October 1995, the booming airline placed a firm order for 50 McDonnell Douglas MD-95 aircraft, plus 50 options— with a price list value of $1 billion—becoming one of the first customers for the aircraft, which became known as the 717 after Boeing tookover McDonnell Douglas in 1997.

As ValuJet continued to grow, reaching 31 cities in 17 states, a certain level of turbulence began to shake its future in late 1995. While the airline received rave reviews from passengers and doubled its profits in the last quarter of that year, it began facing several air safety concerns. In just 17 months, ValuJet experienced more than 114 emergency landings, forcing the FAA to open a thorough investigation. To rub salt in the wound, one of the airline’s DC-9s crashed into the Florida Everglades, resulting in 110 casualties and dooming the future of this distinctive carrier. This accident, which occurred on May 11, 1996, led to an intervention and subsequent grounding of the airline by the FAA. According to inspector David Hinson, “several serious deficiencies in the operations of the airline,” were found, including the failure to establish the airworthiness of some of its aircraft, deficiencies in the maintenance program, and shortcomings in the quality assurance of the third party contractors, besides an overall weakness in the engineering capability of the carrier’s support organization. In the end, the voluntary grounding of the airline lasted four months before operations were resumed again.

Meanwhile, the airline had made significant changes to ensure that safety would be its top priority and had reduced its fleet from 51 aircraft to a mere 15 (11 DC-9s and four MD-80s). At this point, however, the damage to the airline’s image had already become unmanageable, with the media heavily reporting every little thing that went wrong on a ValuJet flight.

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A NEW BEGINNING FOR VALUJET

Even though ValuJet was clearly in distress, in 1997, it started eyeing the AirTran Corporation, which was the holding company of Mesaba Airlines—a former Northwest Airlink carrier. AirTran had just acquired Conquest Sun Airlines and planned to become a low-fare, all-Boeing 737 airline based out of Orlando (MCO).

In July 1997, ValuJet Inc. announced plans to acquire AirTran Corporation. Although ValuJet was the larger and better known airline, it opted to rename and rebrand itself as AirTran Airways, incorporating a new logo (a simple script teal “a”), a new slogan (“It’s something else”) and a new dual-class seating system. As of September 24, 1997, the ValuJet brand was permanently retired and the “Critter”, which had been both the name of the distinctive cartoonish aircraft painted on all ValuJet aircraft and the airline’s callsign, became history, as the new entity retained the original AirTran’s callsign of “Citrus”.

The new AirTran Airways did not just want to cater to leisure travelers with its low fares—a philosophy it had inherited from Valujet—it also wanted to attract business travelers. Typically, this segment did not fly with low-fare airlines, so AirTran introduced a Business Class on all of its aircraft and reconfigured all its DC-9s to 16 business and 90 economy class seats. AirTran would go through a massive and very successful turnaround, as its executives worked extremely hard to turn ValuJet’s somewhat tarnished reputation into AirTran’s new and better one. The airline would still keep ATL as its main hub, but would be headquartered in MCO.


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To everyone’s surprise, bringing ValuJet and AirTran Corporation together proved to be a smooth operation, and, overall, employees were onboard and supportive. Many of the latter cited both the old and new managements’ focus on ensuring that employees came first, which was an approach quite similar to that of Southwest. In the summer of 1998, the two airlines became one in the eyes of the FAA when they received their single operating certificate, and, six months later, a new management team took over, led by Joe Leonard, a veteran of Eastern Air Lines, and Robert L. Fornaro, from US Airways.

At the dawn of the 21st Century, AirTran began to receive the first Boeing 717s it had inherited from ValuJet’s 1995 order. By August 2001, AirTran’s stock began trading on the New York Stock Exchange and the airline had grown to serve more than 56 cities, coast-to-coast, operating over 700  flights a day and transporting nearly 20 million passengers per year.

Conversely, after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, AirTran slashed its scheduled flights by 20% (and also became the first airline to reinforce the cockpit doors of all the aircraft in its fleet). In November 2002, the airline reached an agreement with Air Wisconsin to operate certain regional flights using Bombardier CRJ jets. This venture, called AirTran Jet Connect, however, was put to an end by mid-2004.

Showing signs of continued growth, AirTran subleased four Airbus A320s to Ryan International; this spurred rumors of a major order placement, which became true a month later, when the airline ordered 100 Boeing 737 Next Generation aircraft to help spread its wings across the United States. It also placed a bid for 14 gates at Chicago Midway, after ATA ceased operations in 2004. As the airline rejuvenated itself, the last Douglas DC-9 left  AirTran’s fleet on January 5, 2004; from point onwards, AirTran operated more than 70 Boeing 717s.

In early 2005, XM Radio and AirTran partnered to launch a complimentary radio service on its flights, setting a new in-flight entertainment standard for commercial aviation. Further, it equipped its entire fleet with GoGo WiFi internet service—an industry first.

In 2006, AirTran attempted to take over Midwest Airlines; however, eight months later, the deal expired and did not materialize. Nevertheless, the airline opened its second crew base in Milwaukee and made the city a hub in 2010.

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NEW HORIZON WITH SOUTHWEST

In April 2010, new plans were on the books for AirTran, as Gary Kelly, the CEO at Southwest, started discussing a possible merger with Bob Fornaro. AirTran’s chief noted that he would only be interested in merging his airline under the right circumstances. Six months later, when fuel costs spiked and the economy started to decline, Fornaro agreed to marry the Dallas Love Field-based carrier, and on September 28, 2010, Southwest Airlines finally announced that it would acquire AirTran Airways with a $3.4 billion bid.

Many thought that AirTran and Southwest would not mesh well, as they were different in many ways. AirTran operated a mix of 717s and 737s, a Business Class cabin, and operated a hub-and-spoke network. Southwest, on the other hand, only operated—and still only operates—Boeing 737s, all in a one-class configuration and mostly point-to-point. Despite these noticeable differences, the merger between the two went forward. The combined carrier received a single operating certificate on March 1, 2012, and, just under a year later, Southwest began code sharing with AirTran, as it began the process of slowly absorbing its operations, city by city.

In May 2014, Southwest announced that December 28, 2014, would be the final day for AirTran operations. On this last day, AirTran completed close to 90 flights to more than a dozen cities. For the most part, it looked like business as usual at ATL, despite the many employees preparing for a big farewell party at Gate C3. Hundreds of AirTran employees in older uniforms filled the gate area, where a “One Family. One Love” themed party was in full swing. The gate area was filled with dancing, balloons, and even a cake in the shape of an AirTran aircraft. Many AirTran and Southwest employees spent some quality time sharing memories and celebrating.

A little more than an hour before flight “Critter 1” was scheduled to board, several Southwest executives came together at a podium in the middle of the gate area for a few remarks. Gary Kelly described AirTran’s “Flight 1” as a commencement, “the end of something that was great, but now, it’s the start of something even better, thanks to the people of AirTran,” he said.

Bob Jordan, Southwest’s Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer— as well as AirTran’s President through the  merger—also made a few remarks after Kelly. “We didn’t want this to be like any other airline merger,” he said. “We wanted this to be special, just like Southwest treats its employees. This is a party!” he noted. Jordan also took a moment to praise Fornaro—who was quietly standing in the background—for his leadership and passing of the torch. At this, a loud round of applause and several cheers filled the place.

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AIRTRAN’S FLIGHT INTO THE SUNSET

Kelly and Jordan signed a commemorative certificate marking the final AirTran flight. Minutes later, Kelly started scanning boarding passes and welcoming passengers onboard; these were greeted with drinks and AirTran memorabilia at their seats.

Flight 1 would be under the command of AirTran’s Director of Flight Operations, Floy Ponder, who had 19 years of experience with the airline, and First Officer Janin Hutcheson, who had been with AirTran since ValuJet. They were joined by Captain John E. Souders in the cockpit’s jump seat—a decorated Marine aviator, Vietnam veteran fighter pilot, retired Eastern Airlines captain, and the first pilot ValuJet had hired. Captain Souders had been one of the pilots on the 1993 inaugural flight and had also served as AirTran’s Chief Pilot and VP of Flight Operations.

After boarding was complete, more than a hundred employees and media representatives went down to the ramp to watch the final flight pushback. Looking around, it was clear that emotions were running high, as many posed for one more picture with the Critter. Fire trucks lined up between Concourses C and D to give N717JL (AirTran’s 50th 717) a traditional water-cannon salute. The aircraft pushed back from the gate on time, received its salute, and taxied out to the runway. At 22:30EST and to thunderous applause, AirTran Flight 1 began a 35-second take off roll.

Once above 10,000 feet, the inflight party began. Two Boeing 717 models were passed around and signed by the 117 passengers and six crew. The flight was full, and there had been more than 800 additional people on the standby list. Many AirTran employees had purchased tickets just to be part of this historic event.

Four flight attendants, cloaked in AirTran sashes, went through the cabin twice to provide one final beverage service while navigating around the crowded aisles, and several employees jumped in to help. Cocktails were on the house, and there was even a champagne service onboard—something that was not normally seen on AirTran or Southwest flights. During the approach into Tampa, there was a quick toast to the airline.

During final descent, the captain announced, “I can’t say ‘See you on another AirTran flight,’ but hopefully on another Southwest flight.” Shortly after, the seatbelt signed was turned on. Almost immediately, passengers started chanting for a go-around that, unfortunately, did not happen. After a smooth landing at 23:36, Flight 1 blocked in the gate, ending the AirTran era.

Many passengers stayed on board the aircraft for several minutes while, inside the terminal, yet another party at its height. Many AirTran employees from around the system, particularly from other Florida stations, had traveled to Tampa to celebrate their new beginning with Southwest, an airline known for making its employees feel like family. It was very emotional, with lots of hugs and some tears, but many were excited for the bright future ahead. Citrus and the Critter may be gone, but they are anything but forgotten.

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Airtran: The Airline with Special Liveries

AirTran´s livery did not undergo any massive rebrandings or significant changes throughout its history. However, many special-themed liveries were introduced to celebrate its relationship with sport teams, artists, special accomplishments, and popular attractions.

In 2005, AirTran painted the face of music legend Elton John on 20 Boeing 717s, when the airline began outfitting every seat in its fleet with XM Radio. The airline also went as far as offering its customers to track where all of the Elton John airplanes were flying on its website.

Sir Elton John was not the only person to be painted on the side of a Citrus plane; when Danica Patrick—renowned Indy pilot— won her first and only race in 2008, AirTran painted her on the side of a Boeing 717 along with the titles “AirTranica Won,” to commemorate her victory for the Andretty-Green Racing team in Motegi, Japan as it was the official airline of the team.

Yet another special scheme was unveiled with the picture of Mark Malkoff—a writer, a comedian, and one who had a fear of flying—on the side of an aircraft. For 30 days, he pretty much lived on an AirTran plane as he traveled on 135 flights over 100,000 miles, overcoming his fear of flying.

Although Atlanta was AirTran’s largest hub, Orlando was where the airline was headquartered and had been since communing operations before it was bought by ValuJet. “Say YES to Orlando” and “Orlando Makes Me Smile” were both painted on aircraft to promote Orlando’s Tourism. Typically, most think of Disney World or Universal when they think of Orlando, so, AirTran also rebranded one of its 717s to coincide with the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Another notable livery was “Dolphin 1,” to highlight the airline’s partnership with the world’s largest aquarium—the Georgia Aquarium. A large dolphin was painted on a 737 to promote the new Dolphin attraction.

AirTran was also known for painting aircraft in a special livery for each of the sport teams they sponsored. When the Milwaukee Brewers celebrated their 40th anniversary, AirTran painted a special livery to honor the team. The airline also introduced “Magic 1” in honor of its partnership with the Orlando Magic NBA team, “Colts 1,” in honor of the Indianapolis Colts, “Ravens 1” in honor of the Baltimore Ravens team, and “Falcons 1” in honor of the Atlanta Falcons, among others.

AirTran’s special liveries will be missed. That’s something Southwest Airlines should carry on with as part of the acquired legacy the AirTran brand has brought in to this remarkable and smooth merger.

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Jack Harty

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