AirTran Takes Wing at Charlotte, N.C. Airport

For the last two weeks, Kevin Lewis has been itching to see the planes.

"Coming to the airport and not seeing our airplanes every day, that's weird," says Lewis, the new Charlotte station manager for AirTran Airways.

The first AirTran plane arrives this morning. Along with it comes prospects of lower airfares for Charlotte-area passengers.

Lewis, who came to Charlotte from Atlanta to run the airline's operation here, spent the day ironing out details: ensuring the self-serve kiosks work, meeting with safety inspectors, reviewing final preparations with employees.

AirTran, the nation's 11th-largest airline, will offer four daily flights from Charlotte to its major hub in Atlanta, and another two daily flights to a smaller hub in Baltimore. From those hubs, travelers can connect to more than 40 cities, mostly in the East but also to about a dozen in the West and Midwest.

By comparison, US Airways, which has its largest hub in Charlotte, offers 574 daily nonstop flights to 120 cities. Although AirTran is much smaller than US Airways in Charlotte, its main effect could be to suppress fares.

AirTran says fares typically drop by 30 percent to 50 percent when it enters a market. A quick check of fares Tuesday showed that US Airways, Charlotte's dominant carrier, has undercut AirTran's fares to many cities -- even on nonstop flights that AirTran serves with a connection.

"We hope that the passengers in the market realize those fares dropped because AirTran is coming in and they will give us a chance," says spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver.

A spokesman for US Airways said the airline has cut costs so it can offer lower fares and compete better with low-fare carriers such as AirTran.

AirTran is Charlotte's second low-fare carrier, following Independence Air, which started flights in October. AirTran's predecessor, ValuJet, started service to Charlotte twice in the mid-1990s but pulled out. This time, though, the airline says it has the financial strength to compete with embattled US Airways, which is operating under bankruptcy protection for the second time since 2002.

The effort to get AirTran's Charlotte operations airborne took off in February, when the airline announced its Charlotte flights.

Since then, the airline has hired about two dozen customer-service agents, whose starting pay is $8.75 an hour, plus benefits and free travel. They trained for two weeks in Atlanta.

Lewis, the station manager, says classroom training can bear little resemblance to the demands of the job. The new hires crowded into AirTran's office Tuesday afternoon to hear detailed directions on processing bags, and were preparing to assist mock customers boarding a mock flight.

"When you get up here, it's hustle and bustle," Lewis says. "You have to be quick on your toes."

He should know. Lewis, 31, started with AirTran five years ago as a part-time customer service agent, primarily for the free flight benefits. Five months later, he won a promotion to supervisor. His quick rise through the ranks shows how opportunities can come quickly at expanding airlines.

By contrast, old-line carriers have reduced the size of their fleets and laid off thousands of employees. Those that remain are typically having their wages and benefits cut as their employers battle to survive.

Since arriving in Charlotte two weeks ago, Lewis says he's been surprised by the friendliness of the other airlines. In Atlanta, AirTran battles fiercely with Delta Air Lines, which also has a major hub in the city.

In Charlotte, though, one competitor let him borrow a forklift. Another told him that if he needed anything, just ask. About 10 US Airways employees have submitted resumes, and others have wondered whether AirTran plans more hiring.

"I'm used to everybody being competitive," he says. "Usually, it's dog-eat-dog in the airline industry."

He expects to log yet another 12-plus hours today. The celebration of the airline's debut will include Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, AirTran executives, the media and even Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, who is scheduled to complete a deep pass through a banner that signals an end to high fares in Charlotte, the airline says.

Asked for his prediction on how today will go, Lewis smiles broadly and chuckles.

"Smooth, I hope."