GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Southwest Airlines, which recently completed the purchase of AirTran Airways, will continue to fly out of the Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, the company announced Friday.
Southwest will also continue to maintain flights at 21 other airports that AirTran serviced.
The AirTran workers at each airport, including Grand Rapids , will convert to become Southwest employees over time.
Phil Johnson, the acting executive director for the Ford International Airport, told 24 Hour News 8 they've been courting Southwest for more than a decade, and worked with various groups including The Right Place to convince the airline to come to Grand Rapids.
After Southwest announced in May 2011 they bought AirTran, airport officials were more hopeful, and met with airline officials several times.
Southwest, he said, expressed excitement about being in the Grand Rapids market. But it's not known exactly when the transfer will happen and what exact routes will be flown.
Katie McDonald with Southwest Airlines told 24 Hour News 8 there is not a specific date for the changes in Grand Rapids, and that cities will transition over different timeframes. The first city to change will be Seattle.
The transition process will take a couple years, she said, and passengers should still book through AirTran.
She also said the company is still waiting on a few final approvals from the FAA on the merger.
The airline recently ordered more fuel efficient Boeing 737s and will replace some of the AirTran fleet they will inherit with the newer planes.
Beyond Grand Rapids, those 21 airports eventually transitioning from AirTran to Southwest are: Flint; Rochester, NY; Pensacola; Charlotte; Dayton; Richmond, Va.; Key West; Washington DC; Memphis; Akron-Canton; Wichita; Des Moines; Branson, Mo.; Portland, Maine; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; Cancun, Mexico; Montego Bay, Jamaica; Aruba; San Juan, PR; Bermuda; and Nassau.
In a statement, Southwest officials said AirTran "operations (will) cease on Aug. 12, 2012."
After August 11, AirTran will cease operations at these airports: Allentown; Lexington; Harrisburg; Sarasota; Huntsville; and White Plains.
"We are committed to continuing to serve these communities - at first via AirTran, and eventually as Southwest," said Bob Jordan, who is the executive vice president and chief commercial officer for Southwest, as well as the president of AirTran. "We know there are Southwest Customers who want access to these cities, but have never before had the opportunity, and the markets have long desired Southwest service."
24 Hour News 8's Steve Kelso contributed to this report.
DAVID KOENIG,AP Airlines Writer
DALLAS (AP) — Travelers should get used to higher air fares and full planes.
That formula helped Southwest Airlines Co. overcome a spike in fuel costs and earn $152 million in the fourth quarter.
The carrier, which flies more passengers in the U.S. than any other airline, raised its average fare by 10% to $140. And even with pricier fares and a tough economy, Southwest still filled 80% of its seats, an unusually high percentage.
With forecasts of even higher fuel prices this year, expect Southwest and other airlines to stick with that strategy — especially if travel demand improves with the economy.
Southwest CEO Gary C. Kelly says demand "has just been very steady, very stable, very strong and that's what we're seeing so far here in January."
Southwest was the first major U.S. airline to report fourth-quarter results. United Continental Holdings Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and US Airways Group Inc. will release theirs next week, and analysts expect all three to show operating profits.
The trends bode well for this year.
"2012 is going to be better for Southwest. It's going to be a good year for the airline industry," says Ray Neidl, an analyst with Maxim Group LLC. He predicts the industry could double its 2011 profit.
Neidl says that's possible with just modest economic growth because airlines are limiting flights, which keeps planes full and pushes fares higher.
Even if Southwest doesn't raise fares, "it might mean you won't see as many cheap seats for sale," says Raymond James analyst Savanthi Syth.
At Southwest and most other airlines, the biggest challenge to making money will be high jet fuel prices.
Southwest paid 34% more at the pump to fill its fleet of Boeing 737s in the fourth quarter. Fuel averaged $3.29 per gallon, up from $2.46 a year earlier, and Southwest's fuel tab for the final three months of the year came to $1.49 billion.
And there's no relief in sight. Southwest expects to spend $3.35 per gallon in the first quarter, up from $2.95 per gallon in same period last year.
Southwest's fourth-quarter net income rose 16%. Excluding special items, mostly gains from fuel-hedging contracts that rise in value with oil prices, Southwest's profit fell to $66 million, or 9 cents per share. That still beat Wall Street expectations by a penny, according to FactSet.
With the addition of AirTran
Airways, which Southwest bought last year, revenue rose to $4.11 billion.
AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, meanwhile, is expected to report a loss and to keep losing money in 2012. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in November and has begun trimming marginal flights, which could push some travelers to its more-successful competitors.
Neidl, the Maxim analyst, says United and Delta will benefit most from American's troubles because they fly many of the same long-haul routes. He says Southwest would be helped too if American cuts flights at its Dallas hub.
Southwest shares rose 27 cents, or 3 percent, to $9.29 in afternoon trading.
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