Home » MBJ FEATURE » Southwest/AirTran merger leaves Tunica airport to wait and wonder

Southwest/AirTran merger leaves Tunica airport to wait and wonder

Just last May, AirTran Airways began flying out of Tunica Airport.

The agreement for the airline to provide daily flights to and from Atlanta in and out of Tunica ends in May 2011.

If that agreement is extended beyond that date, the planes are going to look a lot different.

Last week, Southwest Airlines announced that it was acquiring AirTran, subject to FAA and union approval, in a $1.4-billion deal.

So far, said Tunica Airport executive director Cliff Nash, the agreement with AirTran has yielded better-than-expected returns.

“They were hoping for 70 percent, and it’s been in the 90s,” he said. “Right now it’s in the how 80s, high 70s. We’ve had the normal September drop, but it still has exceeded expectations. From an airport’s perspective, we’ve been really pleased with that.”

What the merger of the two airlines means for Tunica could take months to determine. The broad financial parameters of the deal were just made public last week. The transaction now faces several levels of regulatory scrutiny, and also must be approved by pilot and flight attendant unions.

If the deal clears all those hurdles, one of the last steps will be to hammer out destinations and routes, before repainting all of AirTran’s aircraft with the blue and orange of Southwest. At the earliest, that won’t happen until some time in 2011.

“I’m not sure what AirTran is going to do, or more importantly, what Southwest is going to do,” Nash said. “Our contract is (going to run out) before anything takes effect. It’s a lot of uncertainty as far as we’re concerned.

“Having been around different mergers and different transitions like this, there’s usually not a whole lot going on as they absorb one another and re-route. It’ll be interesting to see what’s going to happen. It should have a great effect for sure not only here, but a lot of other places, too.”

Dirk Vanderleest hopes Jackson is one of those other places. Vanderleest, CEO of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority, which operates Jackson-Evers International Airport, shares Nash’s uncertainty about what new services, if any, Southwest would offer, if the merger is approved and finalized.

“I think it’s good news for both (airlines) long term,” Vanderleest said. “The key thing is, the devil’s going to be in the details. We’ve had a very good relationship with Southwest over time. Getting them here (in 1997) was a real coup for a small-hub airport like ours.”

Aviation industry analysts seem to believe that Southwest has its expansion plan set for large markets on the East Coast — New York City, Atlanta and cities where it already competes with AirTran like Baltimore, Md., Orlando, Fla., and Milwaukee, Wis.

The possibility of expanding service from Jackson sounds good in theory, Vanderleest said, but there has to be enough demand to make it feasible.

“Everybody’s obviously interested in (expansion of service),” he said. “The key thing is being able to support that. You don’t want to put a Burger King right next to a McDonald’s and there’s only two customers. That does nobody any good.

“Optimistically, we have the potential for some increased service. The buzzword is cautious optimism.”

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About Clay Chandler

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