On Monday morning, a Southwest flight departed Akron-Canton Airport for Chicago Midway. The airport marked the start of Southwest Airlines’ non-stop service to Chicago with a news conference and a balloon drop.
Passengers looking out the terminal window Sunday morning saw something rarely before seen at Akron-Canton Airport — the blue, red and tan colors of a Southwest Airlines plane.
For the first time in the airport’s history, Southwest Airlines is offering Southwest-branded service from Akron-Canton to its hubs at Denver International Airport and Chicago Midway International Airport. The new flights are the latest development in Southwest’s acquisition of AirTran, which closed May 2011.
Akron-Canton spokeswoman Kristie VanAuken said that in the past a Southwest plane may have landed at the airport as part of a charter flight or flight diversion. But Sunday was the first day Southwest flew Akron-Canton passengers as part of its standard flight schedule.
Southwest’s executive vice president, Bob Jordan, said in an interview Monday morning that the addition of the Southwest flights gives Stark and Summit County residents easier, more direct access to Southwest’s flight network without the drive to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, where Southwest has long had a presence.
“We can get you through Chicago through Denver to nearly all of the 76 airports that Southwest serves,” said Jordan. “That's just a fantastic new breadth of service that did not exist on Saturday that does exist as of (Sunday.)"
Akron-Canton Airport now has two new Southwest flights a day to Chicago Midway and one Southwest flight a day to Denver. Southwest, which announced the flights in January, had operated the flight to Denver under the AirTran brand from May until Saturday. Southwest ended AirTran’s non-stop service from Akron-Canton to Milwaukee because Milwaukee is very close to Chicago Midway.
VanAuken said because a Southwest plane has 140 seats, about 23 more than an AirTran plane, she expects the new flights will add about 50 customers a day to the airport’s traffic.
She said AirTran will, starting in January for the winter only, double its daily flights to Fort Myers, Fla. and Tampa from one to two.
To mark the occasion, airport officials held a media event Monday by AirTran’s gates. As passengers waited for their flights to Tampa, Denver and other destinations, Jordan, Akron-Canton Airport President and CEO Richard McQueen, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth, and U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Copley Township, made remarks about how Southwest’s arrival was a win for the area. Then they watched the balloons, with Southwest’s red, blue and tan colors, drop from the ceiling.
Denise Jenison, 30, of Springfield Township, a longtime Southwest customer, was awaiting the morning flight to Denver where she would catch Southwest’s connection to Oakland, Calif. She said in the past she usually flew on Southwest out of Cleveland Hopkins Airport to catch a connecting flight out of Chicago Midway. Then she got the email from Southwest saying they were launching service at Akron-Canton.
Page 2 of 3 - “I’ve been excited to have Southwest come to Akron-Canton,” she said. “Now it’s just minutes to Springfield Township. … I love the convenience. … they have great service. Their flights have gone well. They don’t have any fees.”
Jordan said that Southwest, which has about 550 planes, is in the process of integrating AirTran, which has about 140 planes, into its operations by 2015. He said he did not yet have a date to give on when all AirTran flights will be re-branded Southwest flights at Akron-Canton.
The executive said it takes about 40 days to repaint an AirTran plane, reconfigure the seating and cockpit and change the carpet colors.
“It’s like remodeling your house,” Jordan said.
First, Southwest will get rid of AirTran’s wider business class seats. All seats are in the same class on a Southwest plane.
“Even though it’s coach, it’s all first class,” Jordan said. “We like to say we like to treat every customer like they’re business class.”
Also, no more seat assignments. AirTran now charges $6 to $20 for a seat assignment more than 24 hours before the flight.
“Southwest uses open seating, so you board in a certain order, and you can take any seat you want on the plane,” said Jordan. “And our customers tell us that they love it.”
Third, Southwest will extend its policy of not charging for checking in two bags per passenger to the former AirTran planes. AirTran now charges $20 for the first bag and $25 for the second.
And no fees to change a Southwest flight. AirTran now charges a $75 change fee.
Will fares go up, once Southwest paints over the teal green of AirTran with its “canyon blue” and tan colors?
“Southwest just like AirTran will have the lowest fares in the market,” said Jordan. “It’s just hard to answer exactly because ... they go up and they go down, and it depends on the timing that you buy. But Southwest will have as many low fares in the market as AirTran has low fares in the market.”
Besides the loss of Milwaukee, will there be any changes in destinations or frequency of flights?
“You’ll see tweaks in the schedule over time,” said Jordan, who explained that the Southwest and AirTran have very different flight networks.”I can’t guarantee you the flight schedule doesn’t move a little bit over time. I can absolutely guarantee you this ... you will have access to more destinations. Far more. And you will have access to far more flight times to get to those destinations.”
He said AirTran passengers who could only get to Los Angeles through Atlanta, will now be able to get there through Denver and Chicago Midway. AirTran now flies nonstop from Akron-Canton to Atlanta, Tampa, Fort Myers, Orlando, Boston and New York LaGuardia.
Page 3 of 3 - Jordan said AirTran passengers will be able to connect to Southwest flights and Southwest passengers to AirTran flights starting sometime between January and March.
And he added that AirTran frequent flier credits, which expire after a year, can be converted to Southwest Rapid Rewards points, which do not expire.
VanAuken said the late Fred Krum, former director of the airport, had been trying since 1987 to woo Southwest to Akron-Canton. But after AirTran started service to the airport in 1997, Southwest feared directly competing with AirTran at Akron-Canton.
She said Southwest is expected to increase its presence from about 40 to 50 AirTran employees with about an additional 40 Southwest employees, who will be customer service agents, ramp workers and gate agents. Southwest is also renting more square footage of office space and storage.
Both Southwest and AirTran will interchangeably use Gates 8, 9 and 10 for 15 flights a day. VanAuken said the three gates can handle 30 flights a day if necessary. Passengers for either can check in bags at the same desk at the front.
For now, Southwest and AirTran are still on separate reservation systems. Travelers generally can’t yet use airtran.com to book Southwest flights and they can’t yet use southwest.com to book AirTran flights. Passengers will still have to use separate kiosks to print out boarding passes.
Currently, travelers can book AirTran flights on websites like Travelocity and Expedia. But not Southwest flights. VanAuken said Southwest has not yet announced if its flights after the integration will be available on the booking sites.