As AirTran Expands, So Have The Lines of Passengers

"We don't think the airline's ever run better than it's running now," said CEO Leonard.

So far, it appears AirTran will have a difficult time getting much more space at the airport. The city's longtime plans to build an additional terminal are on the back burner. An option being discussed is to convert a vacant airport structure such as a former Northwest or Delta maintenance hangar into a concourse with boarding gates, but AirTran is resisting that idea.

AirTran hoped to have nearly exclusive use of three new gates on Hartsfield-Jackson's D concourse when construction is complete this fall. But Delta has also asked to use the gates, which will be "common use" gates available to all carriers, rather than leased to one airline.

The airport began shifting away from long-term leases to gain flexibility to respond to changes in the industry, said Hartsfield-Jackson spokeswoman Felicia Browder. Hartsfield-Jackson wants to make newly constructed gates and ticket counters common use.

Existing facilities also will become common use when airlines' leases expire in 2010, said Browder. Currently, about one-fifth of the airport's gates and ticket counters are multiuser.

Browder said the changes were prompted by Hartsfield-Jackson's overall traffic growth rather than any concerns that Delta's shrinkage and AirTran's rapid growth have caused an imbalance in how facilities at the airport are used.

"It's not about one airline vs. another, per se. It's about looking at the big picture," she said. "I wouldn't say things are out of balance."

Meanwhile, Delta says it needs all the airport gates and other facilities it leases at Hartsfield-Jackson. Even though total passenger loads are down, Delta expects its international traffic to grow.

Delta has invested tens of millions in self-service kiosks and other upgrades of its Atlanta terminal that it says now allow most customers to check in within minutes. Delta spent $12 million last year on such improvements. And the airline plans another overhaul beginning this fall to add more kiosks and check-in counters that can handle both international and domestic flights.

Still bare-bones

AirTran's bare-bones way of doing business could be exacerbating some of its problems in Atlanta. AirTran has dozens of check-in kiosks at the Atlanta airport, but they haven't eliminated long lines.

During that recent Monday morning rush, customers couldn't reach many of AirTran's kiosks for several minutes because the line folded three times in front of a row of 15 kiosks near the ticket counters, blocking access. Relatively few people were using them.

"That's not the way it's supposed to work," said AirTran's Hutcheson. He said the current layout of AirTran's check-in lobby "seems awkward" and needs to be improved, but space is limited.

"When you first walk in, it looks pretty intimidating," said Hutcheson. He said the line "moves pretty fast," but an hour is "excessive."

Even with AirTran's rough edges here and there, its customers remain relatively tolerant, according to industry experts, possibly because of the discount airline's reputation as a fare-buster.

"I'd have to say they're in the ups and downs of the industry," said Wichita State University professor Dean Headley, who co-produces an annual ranking based on the DOT's statistics on on-time arrivals, baggage complaints and other measures. AirTran was second in last year's ranking but is about average so far this year, he said.

Customer complaints were surprisingly muted during the recent software shutdown, despite the hours-long waits while AirTran's ticket agents struggled to find seats for thousands of travelers who missed their flights because of the delays. At times when the computers were down, the agents wrote boarding passes by hand.

Kevin Jones, a senior loan officer at First Rate Mortgage in metro Atlanta, said AirTran's problems prompted him to call ahead of a recent flight to make sure the software bugs were fixed, but he expects to remain a loyal customer.

"I've never had any problem with AirTran," he said, adding that he usually flies on the discount carrier unless Delta or another airline offers a more convenient or cheaper flight. "Their people are nicer."

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