So will Southwest Airlines' arrival in Atlanta be better for fliers, or would they be better off if AirTran remained independent? That may depend on what you consider "better." Prices, customer service, convenience and frequent flier perks all figure into it. Here's a guide that may help you decide:
Q: Which airline is cheaper?
A: Both tout themselves as discounters that bring lower fares to markets they serve. Southwest keeps costs low because of its "on-the-ground efficiency," said Clark Howard, consumer advocate and AM 750 and now 95.5FM News/Talk WSB radio host. Over a longer flight, that cost savings disappears in favor of AirTran, Howard said. In short, any discount will depend largely on the distance of the flight.
Q: Does this mean baggage fees go away?
A: As long as Southwest maintains its "bags fly free" policy for first and second checked bags, it does. However, Southwest hasn't said how soon it intends to bring AirTran under its fee structure.
Q: What about other fees?
A: One of the best fee comparative Websites is TruPrice.net. Here's how the two airlines and Delta stack up in three areas:
Southwest: Pets in cabin $75; Pets as cargo: $0; Unaccompanied minor: $50
AirTran: Pets in cabin: $65; Pets as cargo: $0; Unaccompanied minor: $49
Delta: Pets in cabin: $125; Pets as cargo: $200; Unaccompanied minor: $100
Q: Will I have a seat assignment?
A: Southwest Airlines boards passengers in groups. When your group is called, you board the plane and pick any open seat. You can buy early-boarding privileges for $10 each way. AirTran assigns seats, with fees for advance selection.
Q: How do the frequent flyer programs compare?
A: AirTran awards (A+ Rewards) a free one-way flight per every four roundtrip coach flights taken in a year. There's no mileage minimum. Southwest's Rapid Rewards allows a free roundtrip after eight roundtrip flights within 24 consecutive months. Eventually, AirTran's A+ Rewards customers will merge into the Rapid Rewards program.
Q: Will we continue to see dramatic sales from these low-fare airlines?
A: Answering that would be speculation. However, at least some industry experts are leery. Consolidation means fewer competitors in the market. As a result, there could be less pressure to keep prices low.
Q: Which airline serves more cities?
A: AirTran serves or has announced service to 72 cities. Southwest currently has service in 69, with three more coming in 2011. Of those, there are 32 common airports.
Q: I hate changing planes. Which has more nonstop routes?
A: Southwest, by far, has more nonstop routes with 461 compared to 177 by AirTran.
Q: What kind of planes do they fly?
A: AirTran has 86 Boeing 717 aircraft and 52 Boeing 737s. Southwest only flies 737s.
Q: Does Southwest have business class seating?
A: Southwest has what it calls Business Select. For a fee, passengers can get priority boarding, a drink voucher, extra Rapid Rewards credits and priority access to the ticket counter and security checkpoint.The seats, however, as the same as in coach. AirTran's business class includes bigger seats in addition to other perks like waived bag fees.
Q: When will the companies actually combine?
A: The process could take up to two years, with AirTran still flying under its own name during the transition.
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