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What will the new Southwest-AirTran merger mean to you?

Consumer Reports News: May 10, 2011 06:08 AM

Last September, when Dallas-based Southwest Airlines announced its intention to acquire Orlando-based AirTran Airways, we called this a mixed blessing for consumers—good because this merger of two low-cost carriers will bring cheaper fares into more markets, and bad because approval of this deal may lead to further consolidation in the airline industry, which could result in lower service and higher fares.

Late last month the U.S. Department of Justice provided its blessing for this union, stating "the merger is not likely to substantially lessen competition." The DOJ noted there are nonstop route overlaps in Southwest's route map serving 72 U.S. cities and AirTran's route map serving 69 cities in the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean, but asserted there are "consumer benefits" from the expansion of two low-cost carriers.

In the latest survey of airlines conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, Southwest scored highest in overall satisfaction among our readers, based on their experiences on domestic round-trip flights between January 2010 and January 2011. AirTran ranked fifth among 10 airlines. The survey is featured in the June issue of Consumer Reports.

Southwest provides detailed information on the logistics of the merger on its site. For the time being, both airlines will continue to operate under their separate brands until the Federal Aviation Administration provides a single operating certificate for the new carrier, expected in the first quarter of 2012.

Two key questions already have been answered: Once both companies have been melded into one, Southwest will not adopt AirTran's two-class configuration, nor will Southwest continue AirTran's assigned seating policy. Members of both airlines' frequent-flyer programs have been instructed to continue accruing points as usual, but eventually AirTran's A+ Rewards will be integrated into Southwest's Rapid Rewards plan.

Over time AirTran's Boeing 717 fleet will be repainted in Southwest's colors; until now the world's largest low-cost carrier has operated an all-Boeing 737 fleet. Eventually the reservations and ticketing systems will be combined as well.

It's also worth noting that Southwest—which is the only U.S. carrier that does not charge for checking your first or second bags—said AirTran's fees for these services would be eliminated once the integration process is complete. However, in the meantime you can expect to continue paying $20 for your first bag and $25 for your second bag on AirTran.

Interestingly, 93 percent of the Southwest passengers we surveyed had avoided all of the fees we asked about, including those for checked bags, in-flight snacks and meals, and pillows and blankets. Only 33 percent of AirTran passengers paid no such fees.

William J. McGee

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