Airtran looks to grow; But without financial help, operations center, HQ may move

As the wind from Hurricane Charley shrieked outside, two dozen employees at work in AirTran Airway's national control center in Orlando watched as the ceiling started to heave. Panels lifted 5 inches into the air and slammed back down, sending dust sprinkling to the floor.

People were already running for the safety of door frames that evening of Aug. 13, 2004, when duty manager Kelly Ballinger yelled, "Everybody get under your desks!"

Three years later, executives at Orlando-based AirTran want to build a bigger, stronger command center -- and they want taxpayers to help pay for it. Without that help, they say, they might move their operations center -- and their corporate headquarters along with it -- to another city.

"One, we're outgrowing our building. And two, we need a hardened facility," said Kevin Healy, AirTran's vice president of planning.

AirTran's headquarters is now in an aging, 34,000-square-foot building that it has leased from Orlando International Airport since 1998. The airline's Systems Operations Control is near the back, in a dimly lit room packed with cubicles and computers from which employees monitor the more than 760 flights AirTran operates each day.

Executives say they cannot keep squeezing everything into the same space much longer.

In the decade since AirTran Holdings Inc., the parent company of AirTran Airways, moved in on OIA land, it has mushroomed from a $212 million-a-year airline with 46 jets into a $1.8 billion-a-year carrier with a fleet of 137 aircraft. The number of dispatchers alone working in the operations center has jumped from a dozen to more than 40.

What's more, AirTran officials say, Hurricane Charley proved that their existing facility is too vulnerable to house an operations center that must remain in contact with airplanes. Charley, whose eye passed close to the airport as it tore across Central Florida, ripped off roof-top air-conditioning units and sent waterlogged ceiling panels crashing to the floor, forcing the airline to temporarily relocate its operations center to Atlanta.

But building a stand-alone operations center, which would likely be between 10,000 and 20,000 square feet and go on empty land adjacent to the current headquarters, is expensive. And AirTran executives say Atlanta, already home to the airline's passenger hub and most of its employees, has made overtures to the company about building the facility there, though a spokeswoman for the Atlanta mayor said she was unaware of any discussions when contacted recently.

AirTran is pressing its case to leaders in Florida. Last month, company Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Joe Leonard gave Gov. Charlie Crist a personal tour of the headquarters and command center.

Although AirTran officials would not provide details, people close to the talks say the company and state officials have discussed a program in which businesses can get refunds of as much as $5 million a year on corporate income, sales and other taxes. Darden Restaurants won $2.5 million worth of such breaks last year when it agreed to expand its headquarters in Orlando.

Crist's office also is said to be considering offering AirTran money from the state's "quick action closing fund," a loosely monitored kitty the governor can tap for incentives. State lawmakers this spring set aside $45 million in the account.

A spokesman for the state economic-development agency would not discuss its talks with AirTran in any detail, calling it a "confidential project." But Enterprise Florida spokesman Stuart Doyle said high-paying aviation "is a critical industry and one in which we definitely want retention and growth in."

Meanwhile, officials at Orlando International Airport and City Hall are negotiating new rent terms for AirTran.

AirTran's current headquarters lease, which is set to expire at the end of the year, already contains a substantial break. A clause inserted three years ago allows the airline to keep about $67,000 of the roughly $320,000 in annual rent it is supposed to pay, as long as it does not pull out of the lease.

The airport signaled its willingness to accommodate AirTran further earlier this year by extending a deadline the airline faces for deciding whether to exercise a five-year extension on its lease. Initially set for the end of June, the deadline was put off until the end of this month, and it's likely to be extended again.

Local officials also would not reveal details about their discussions with AirTran. Brooke Bonnett, a top economic-development aide to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, said only that the city "works collaboratively with AirTran to achieve their business plan and fulfill growth opportunities."

Chris Schmidt, a deputy executive director at OIA, added, "We consider it important for the long-term success of the airport to have a strategic partner like AirTran here."

CONTACT: Jason Garcia can be reached at or 407-420-5414.