Southwest buyout of AirTran bittersweet for co-founder

As Southwest Airlines gradually transforms AirTran Airways’ planes into its own, for Lewis Jordan, it means letting go of a carrier he co-founded some 20 years ago.

Jordan helped launch AirTran predecessor ValuJet, led the airline through the 1996 crash of Flight 592 in the Everglades and the aftermath, and served on the AirTran board up until the acquisition by Dallas-based Southwest.

“I was the only person [on the board] who was there from the first day we went in business until the last day,” Jordan said in an interview after delivering a talk at an Atlanta Aero Club meeting.

He said there were “several paths” that could have kept AirTran a successful stand-alone airline, but volatile fuel costs limited the options. “When you are a steward of shareholders’ life savings and investments, you have a responsibility to protect them,” Jordan said. “One thing you learn is you have to put your personal feelings aside.”

In the end, the board vote was unanimous in favor of the acquisition by Southwest.

For Jordan, the marriage with Southwest “is like marching with my daughter on her wedding day down the aisle…. This was my baby.”

A year and a half after the deal closed, the combination of the two carriers’ operations is still in progress, and the AirTran name is expected to remain in some form into 2015. AirTran still had roughly 170 flights a day from Atlanta this fall, while Southwest had about 20 daily flights.

Next year, Southwest plans to connect AirTran’s route network with its own. Southwest has cut some AirTran routes as it gradually dismantles the AirTran hub in Atlanta to decrease the focus on connecting passengers.

Jordan, meanwhile, has started an organization called GratitudeAmerica, focusing on community resources for veterans.

He said it’s “highly unlikely” he’ll rejoin the airline industry, but added, “I can’t walk around without looking up to see if there’s an airplane up in the air.”