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Updated: 7:57 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010 | Posted: 7:50 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010

Southwest Airlines: Atlanta could be biggest operation

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By Kelly Yamanouchi

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Dallas -- Atlanta could grow into the largest operation in Southwest Airlines’ system nationwide after the carrier completes its proposed acquisition of AirTran Airways, a Southwest executive said Thursday.

Bob Jordan, Southwest’s executive vice president of strategy and planning, said he thinks Southwest could eventually have “well more than the 202” daily flights AirTran operates out of Atlanta now.

Dallas-based Southwest last month announced its deal to acquire Orlando-based AirTran, which has its largest hub in Atlanta.

“It could turn out to be that Atlanta is the largest city in the Southwest network in a reasonable amount of time,” Jordan said at a media conference.

Las Vegas is now Southwest’s biggest city, with 224 daily flights. But even if Southwest adds enough flights to make Atlanta its largest operation, it might still not be as big as AirTran was before cutbacks in 2008.

The two airlines cannot discuss routes, pricing and scheduling until the deal closes, so “it’s very hard to plan” what operations in Atlanta will look like for the combined company, Jordan said.

He also said he is “very comfortable about our ability to win over AirTran passengers.”

Some AirTran regulars have formed a campaign called AirTran SOS to “save our seats,” petitioning Southwest to maintain AirTran’s business class and reserved seats -- neither of which it offers.

Jeff Lamb, Southwest’s senior vice president of administration, noted that the airline has modified its service somewhat to offset those differences, with early boarding options to assure better seat selection.

“Some people may have tried us years ago and haven’t flown us in a while . . . the product is much different today,” he said.

Still, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly acknowledged at the conference, “We’ve long held out that we’re not all things to all people. . . . I fully expect that we’ll have customers who choose not to fly Southwest Airlines.”

Integrating employees and operations will also be a hurdle, Kelly said.

“We need to be humble, we need to listen, we need to learn from AirTran,” Kelly said. “We’re also not in a rescue situation with AirTran. They have a very solid operation.”

Separately, the flight attendants union at AirTran filed for mediation in their contract negotiations with management after talks broke down.

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