AirTran Explains Changing Schedules in Sarasota

If you are among the Sarasota-Bradenton travelers who don't understand AirTran's on-again, off-again schedule, Chief Executive Officer Joseph Leonard can explain.

"Everything we do is to maximize profits," Leonard said in an interview Thursday while he was in Tampa to receive the Tony Jannus Award for distinguished service in commercial aviation.

Leonard leads an airline that is small enough to take a chance on airports like Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport but smart enough to turn seven annual profits.

He made it clear that AirTran's strategy of quickly moving planes to meet demand won't change, even as competition heats up at Sarasota-Bradenton.

The airline has 20 percent of its business in Florida but has started seasonal service on east-west routes to boost its third-quarter results.

Markets like Sarasota-Bradenton will continue to see seasonal fluctuations in service.

This summer, AirTran stopped flying from Sarasota-Bradenton to Indianapolis and in September to Baltimore-Washington International, even though service to those cities was a much-heralded benefit of AirTran's arrival in late 2004.

AirTran, aided by a federal grant, is credited with stopping a downward spiral of service and passenger traffic at the local airport.

Now US Airways is competing with a nonstop flight into the heart of Washington, D.C., Reagan National Airport. JetBlue has effectively beat AirTran to the New York market with service to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

A year ago, AirTran tried to launch nonstop flights to Boston and New York's LaGuardia International but quickly scaled back when the bookings didn't materialize.

Delta is AirTran's main competitor both at the giant hub of Atlanta and diminutive Sarasota-Bradenton. Bankrupt Delta has $16.6 billion in revenue while AirTran has less than $2 billion.

Unlike Delta, AirTran doesn't strategize around market share, Leonard said.

"We don't plan around market share," he said. "We plan around profits."

Leonard, who has a degree in aerospace engineering, relies on a strategy of simplicity and incremental cost-saving.

AirTran will continue to lower its costs, aside from fuel, by 1.5 percent a year, he said. The airline uses new, more fuel-efficient planes and continues to maximize every minute of the day. Planes are in use 11.3 hours a day, and he expects that to rise to 11.5 hours a day by year-end.

Asked about the airline's reputation for internal cost-consciousness, he said, "We're very proud of that. That's a badge we wear on our shirt."

Asked whether AirTran will fly internationally, Leonard said that would go against the airline's strategy of simplicity. "That's not a high priority for us," Leonard said.

AirTran has benefited from struggling airlines' cutbacks, and Leonard hopes the industry will continue to limit the number of seats it makes available. Ticket prices are up, and the supply-and-demand situation is the best it has been in the past seven years, he said.

Leonard, once chief operating officer for Eastern Air Lines, returned to the business after becoming CEO of AlliedSignal.

Although AirTran is expanding its own capacity, he cracked that airlines need to be saved from their own bad habit, "generally big orders placed right before the downturn."

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