AirTran Airways is looking prosperous these days -particularly at the check-in counter - but perhaps too prosperous for some customers.
During a recent Monday morning rush, more than a hundred AirTran customers stood in a line that wrapped around the carrier's main lobby and down a hallway behind its ticket counters. The lines have gotten so long this summer - with wait times commonly hitting an hour - that the discount carrier last week advised Atlanta customers to arrive two hours before their flights, rather than 90 minutes.
And this is when things are going normally.
Last month, a glitch in a new computer system at the fast-growing airline caused thousands of passengers at the Atlanta airport to miss flights. While AirTran quickly fixed its problems and sent $100 travel vouchers as apologies to roughly 15,000 affected customers, the incident and long lines raise a question:
Is AirTran experiencing growing pains?
No, according to AirTran Chief Executive Joe Leonard. "We don't think the airline's ever run better than it's running now," said Leonard, who called the recent near shutdown a "hiccup" and insisted it wasn't a signal of strains on the 7,700-employee airline.
While industry experts give AirTran high marks for how it handled the computer incident and say the airline's overall performance compares well to other carriers, they contend AirTran's 20 percent-a-year growth rate is causing headaches.
"I think we'd be crazy not to admit that they're having some growing pains," said Terry Trippler, a travel and fare expert with Vacation Passport, a Minneapolis-based travel club.
He rates AirTran's customer service highly but said he's also sensing more stress among employees, perhaps because of the airline's rapid growth. "It's not the happy, happy airline it started out to be," he said.
AirTran executives say the carrier is bursting at the seams at the Atlanta airport - by far its largest operation - and customers are feeling the effects.
"We are facility-constrained in Atlanta," said Tad Hutcheson, AirTran's marketing chief. "We are the fastest-growing airline in the country. We've got 20 planes coming this year. We've got 20 planes coming next year, and we want to put these planes in Atlanta, but we need the facilities to do so."
To be sure, many airline executives would be happy to have AirTran's problems. The Orlando, Fla.-based carrier has been making hay in the post-9/11 world while Delta Air Lines and other "legacy" carriers ran into financial trouble and retrenched.
AirTran's revenue has more than doubled since 2000, to $1.4 billion last year, and it has remained mostly profitable. Its passenger base has grown at a similar rate, to 16.6 million last year.
Delta slims down
Meanwhile, Atlanta-based Delta, which filed for bankruptcy last September, has been shrinking its operations domestically and in Atlanta as it shifts more planes to international routes it hopes will pay better.
Through March, the latest data available, Delta and its regional carrier partners transported 1.4 million fewer passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport than a year earlier, a decline of 8 percent. AirTran's passenger volume, on the other hand, went up by about 500,000, or 20 percent. AirTran now flies about one in six Atlanta passengers, compared to one in 10 five years ago.
"We desperately need more gates and facilities," said Hutcheson. Besides the back-ups in the ticket lobby, AirTran contends that a lack of facilities causes bottlenecks for arriving aircraft and baggage handlers.
Hutcheson said AirTran could use up to 50 gates, compared with the 29 it now has to handle 250 flights a day. Delta and its regional partners, by comparison, handle more daily flights per gate, with 100 gates at Hartsfield-Jackson handling 1,040 flights a day.
Space tough to get
"We don't think the airline's ever run better than it's running now," said CEO Leonard.
AirTran's apology is unusual in an industry where airlines rarely issue blanket compensation to passengers after such problems.
Arrangement to book stranded fliers severed