AirTran fills Frontier void; Will fly Memphis- Florida routes starting Jan. 11, evaluate other destinations

AirTran Airways is picking up the Memphis-Florida routes Frontier Airlines was forced to abandon when oil hit $95 a barrel.

Starting Jan. 11, Atlanta-based AirTran will add weekend service to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. In mid-February, it will bump up the number of flights for spring break, it says, while continuing to evaluate the possibility of other nonstop destinations from Memphis.

AirTran will not offer introductory rates, but plans to match its going price to Orlando. January bookings Tuesday started at $89 for a one-way ticket.

"Frontier asked us if it would be possible for us to take some of the passengers they had already sold tickets to," said John Kirby, AirTran spokesman. "Since we have a partnership with Frontier, it made sense."

The low-cost carriers share frequent-flier benefits. This month - six months after it came into the Memphis market - Frontier said economics were forcing it to cut back, starting in January.

While it will continue to serve Memphis with two daily flights to Denver - its home - it cut service to Las Vegas, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

"AirTran has always been a smart opportunist, stepping in where others haven't made the grade," said David Field, editor, Airline Business magazine.

"Bear in mind that also AirTran has a pretty good balance sheet and can afford losses on a new market, while Frontier had to start to make money from day one," he said.

AirTran is also better known among bargain hunters, which travel agents say will help in Memphis, where its more robust service is expected to keep Orlando fares down.

But equally important, they say, is that AirTran does not fly regional jets.

"People like the larger planes, especially at a time when many others are downsizing and going with regional jets," said Marion McDonald at Custom Travel. "It's frustrating, especially for business travelers who can't get complimentary upgrades because there's no class cabin to upgrade."

AirTran will serve the routes with 117-seat Boeing 717s, which offer coach and first-class seating.

"It's a nice airplane," said Larry Cox, president and chief executive of the Memphis-Shelby Airport Authority. "In this business, it's hard to predict what airlines are going to do more than 60 or 90 days out. But because Memphis is close to AirTran's base in Atlanta, it makes sense that it would work better for AirTran than Frontier."

AirTran has been flying nonstop between Memphis and Atlanta since 1993, building the market to five flights a day.

"Certainly, our intention is to fly Orlando on a permanent basis," Kirby said, adding that the airline is always looking to expand in its core cities. "It gives us not only better economies of scale, but it lowers our departure costs, helps us do a better job of penetrating the market and justifies spending more on marketing."

It's no secret that AirTran has been looking for a minihub in the Midwest. It tried to buy ATA, which would have given it Chicago Midway. Late this summer, it got in a bidding war with Northwest Airlines and equity group TPG Inc. for Midwest Airlines, which would have given AirTran a foothold in Milwaukee.

Although a few additional weekend flights to Florida are not reason to think Memphis could be a minihub, the scenario changes, Field said, if AirTran starts going head to head with Northwest to business destinations.

"The question is: Could Memphis support a real second airline?"

-Jane Roberts: 529-2512