When AirTran Airways acquired more gates and launched a major expansion at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in 2003, many North Texas travelers hoped that it was the beginning of a low-fare revolution.
Two years later, after a protracted battle with American Airlines, the insurgency seems to be sputtering. AirTran executives said Wednesday that they plan to retreat from one of their highest-profile routes -- D/FW to Los Angeles International Airport.
AirTran, based in Orlando, Fla., will suspend the twice-daily flight to Los Angeles starting Dec. 6, according to Kevin Healy, the airline's vice president of planning.
That leaves American and United Airlines as the only carriers with nonstop service from North Texas to Los Angeles. It also means fares on the route are almost certain to rise, analysts said.
"Fares will go up, absolutely," said Terry Trippler, an analyst with Cheapseats.com, a Minneapolis-based travel firm that monitors airline ticket prices. "You can bet the rent on it."
Healy blamed high fuel costs for the route's elimination.
"Fuel is such an overriding concern, and it's an impediment to our growth," he said, pointing out that other carriers, including American and Northwest Airlines, have cut selected routes recently to save money on fuel.
He declined to say when or if AirTran will resume the route. "If I had a fuel crystal ball, maybe I'd know," he said.
But there is little doubt that heavy competition from American helped take the steam out of AirTran's expansion. Last year, AirTran announced two new destinations from D/FW -- Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, Fla. -- that it never launched.
Meanwhile, AirTran has been growing in other markets. This week, the airline announced new service between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago, hoping to pick up customers on a route that rival discounter ATA Airlines had dropped.
At D/FW, AirTran has faced intense competition from American, particularly on the Los Angeles route. American not only matched AirTran's low fares to Los Angeles International, but the airline also cut fares to four other airports in the region.
That gave American 39 daily flights against AirTran's two. With American's strong customer base in North Texas, it's been a challenge for AirTran to lure customers away.
With the route suspended, AirTran now serves just four cities nonstop from D/FW -- Atlanta, Orlando, Las Vegas and Baltimore/Washington.
Gerard Arpey, American's chief executive, said during a conference call that he did not see AirTran's retreat as a victory.
"I don't see that as a seminal schedule change," he said. "It's more of a tactical decision, just like the ones we've had to make."
In addition to higher fares for flights from D/FW to Los Angeles, the move could have implications in the long battle over the Wright Amendment as well.
For months, D/FW officials have pointed to AirTran as an example of a low-fare carrier that can operate successfully at the airport. With the airline's D/FW base shrinking, critics are likely to argue that the airport may never snare substantial discount service.
That would give ammunition to Southwest Airlines, which wants to repeal the amendment, a 1979 law that restricts service at Dallas Love Field to Texas and adjacent states, as well as Mississippi, Alabama, and Kansas.
Southwest operates exclusively in North Texas from Love, arguing that D/FW, as a major hub for American, doesn't fit their business model, which favors smaller, alternative airports. Southwest executives say the fastest way to bring low fares to North Texas is to repeal the amendment and allow it unrestricted flights from Love.
D/FW officials counter that removing the restrictions would hurt the larger airport and the local economy. They say Southwest should begin long-haul service from D/FW, which would require no changes in the law.
Joe Lopano, the airport's executive vice president of marketing, said new airlines are leery of coming to D/FW because of fears that the amendment could be lifted.
"The ongoing uncertainty associated with efforts to repeal the Wright Amendment will make it very difficult for us to find a carrier to backfill [AirTran's] service in the near term," he said.
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