With pomp and speeches and a visit from Ozzie Smith, AirTran Airways Inc. will launch service at Lambert Field today.
The nation's second-biggest low-cost airline will start with four daily flights to Atlanta and plans to add a fifth to Orlando, Fla., next month.
It's just a small piece of Lambert's overall traffic - five flights a day, out of about 350. But it's a good sign for the airport, which hopes the presence of AirTran will boost competition and lower fares, especially to the South and the East Coast.
"The traveling public should benefit not only from travel on AirTran but also for the pressure they'll put on other airlines," said Brian Kinsey, Lambert's business and marketing manager. Competitors' fares have dropped on some of AirTran's routes since it started selling tickets in January.
From its hub in Atlanta, AirTran flies to 56 cities with a strong presence in Florida, Baltimore and Boston. St. Louis was one of the biggest metro areas it didn't yet serve, said spokesman Tad Hutcheson, and it has a mix of business and leisure travel that works well for the airline.
So far, the airline has sold a lot of tickets. "We're very encouraged with bookings," Hutcheson said. "We think we picked a winner."
Lambert spent nearly four years pursuing AirTran before finally reaching a deal in January. AirTran plans to apply for a new incentive program at the airport, probably worth about $100,000 a month.
AirTran was a logical fit to come here, Kinsey said, so it was just a matter of timing. The airline is in expansion mode this year, adding planes and several destinations, and it has launched a hostile takeover bid for Midwest Airlines.
Once it is established at Lambert, Hutcheson said, AirTran will review its options for growth here. However, today it will focus on its launch, bringing in Ozzie Smith to throw out a "first pitch" and trucking in beer from Anheuser-Busch Cos. with a born-on date of today for its in-flight service.
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