Southwest in Atlanta: fewer flights, more local fliers

Airline arrived five years ago through AirTran buyout.

Southwest Airlines’ move to buy out AirTran Airways and enter the Atlanta market sparked hopes among some that the Dallas-based discounter would give hometown giant Delta Air Lines a bigger run for its money.

The reality is that, five years after launching flights, Southwest has significantly fewer flights from Atlanta than AirTran did — 124 daily departures compared with 220 before the Southwest takeover. Its presence keeps some competitive pressure on Delta, but it has not sparked a major dogfight.

“Overall, I don’t think [Southwest] has had as big an impact as everyone expected. It just seems to have been watered down a little bit,” said Chris McGinnis, editor of the blog. “The people who were drawn to the low fares — they don’t really see that much difference between Southwest and Delta or any of the majors.”

Service-wise, Southwest maintains a free checked baggage policy that cuts costs for some travelers. On the other hand, its all-coach jets offer no first-class option for business fliers and other upgraders. Southwest also doesn’t offer assigned seats, although some fliers actually prefer its zoned boarding system.

AirTran at its height in 2008 had more than 19 percent of the market in Atlanta measured by passengers carried. In 2016, Southwest’s market share was just under 10 percent.

Delta and its partners have become more dominant in the same stretch, going from 72.7 percent of the market in 2008 to 81 percent in 2016.

But Southwest says that even with fewer flights, it is carrying more metro Atlantans than AirTran did, thanks to bigger planes and a sharper focus on local passengers.

It is also hiring another 100 employees in coming months to work at its Atlanta call center, where it has doubled the size of its workforce.

“We’ve made a focus of bringing jobs to Atlanta,” said Jack Smith, senior vice president of operations for Southwest. The company has about 2,840 employees based in Atlanta.

The price of flying

Air fares have fluctuated during the time Southwest has been in Atlanta, due to various factors including initial route cuts and the growth of smaller discounters Spirit and Frontier at Hartsfield-Jackson.

But Southwest’s own impact on fares has been muted, in part because it simply replaced AirTran, rather than adding an additional competitor.

Federal data show Southwest isn’t always the lowest-priced airline on a route. Other airlines sometimes have lower prices.

“Anyone who has bought a ticket on Southwest knows that Southwest is no longer the low-price leader in many markets,” McGinnis said.

While the airline built its national network around the “Southwest effect” of entering a city and lowering fares dramatically, “that has kind of gone away,” McGinnis said.

Southwest contends it has still brought down higher-end, lightly restricted “walk-up” fares that business travelers often pay.

“AirTran already had low fares on the low end,” spokesman Brad Hawkins said. “Where we have effected the most change on the Atlanta side is the walk-up fares.”

Focus on Atlanta passengers

AirTran, like Delta, had built a connecting hub in Atlanta that it used to concentrate and maximize passenger loads. Southwest does not operate a traditional hub-and-spoke model, and its focus in Atlanta has been more on “point-to-point” fliers starting or finishing their trips here.

As a result, Southwest says its routes and flight times are more closely focused on when and where Atlantans want to fly, and attract more local travelers.

Though a familiar name nationally, Southwest had never served Atlanta before the AirTran buyout. Some hardy bargain-hunters drove to Birmingham to catch its flights in years past, and some had experience in other cities.

But just 6 percent of Atlanta fliers had flown Southwest when it started service at Hartsfield-Jackson, according to the airline’s internal research. Today, more than 34 percent of Atlanta fliers have flown Southwest.

That’s progress, but still shows a majority of travelers have not flown Southwest — even though three-quarters check Southwest’s website when booking a domestic flight, according to the airline.

“They’ve probably done well with leisure travelers, but I don’t think they’ve made a lot of headway with business travelers,” McGinnis said. “When AirTran left, a lot of business travelers just switched over to Delta … There just weren’t enough flights per day to a lot of the different markets that made it convenient for them.”

Smith, Southwest’s executive sponsor for Atlanta, said it will take time for the airline to grow.

“Building a presence against the behemoth is tough, but we clearly have made some good headway against that,” Smith said. “I see nothing but upside growth for us here.”

He said that will increase as Southwest adds more destinations and international routes, and as “more people become aware of Southwest, they try us and they become more aware of what a great value proposition it is.”

Southwest quirks

Southwest says that, aside from fare comparisons, it has saved travelers money through its policy of allowing two free checked bags. It also doesn’t charge change fees, allowing more flexibility.

“You buy a ticket and if your plans change, you can look at that as an investment for something else,” said traveler and retired travel agent Clark Goodwin, who lives in Buckhead.

Southwest’s seating and boarding process still takes getting used to for new customers. Passengers board based on the order they checked in for the flight. Those who pay $15 for early check-in board first and get the first crack at window or aisle seats.

Goodwin said he prefers Southwest’s system, now that he knows how it works.

On Delta, he said, it seems boarding takes longer and “often, in my opinion, the only seats that are reservable are middle seats.”

McGinnis said some travelers also are confused and frustrated by the layered fares of Delta and other big carriers, which now include basic economy levels that also don’t come with a pre-assigned seat.

While many were scared off by Southwest’s “cattle call” system initially, McGinnis added, “there are a lot of Southwest devotees out there … A lot of those people will tell you they prefer the open seating.”

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