What Happened To US Low-Cost Carrier AirTran Airways

AirTran Airways, or simply AirTran, was a US budget carrier headquartered in Florida with its main hub in Atlanta. Operating mainly Boeing 717s and 737s, the airline would shuttle passengers around the US midwest and east coast. Operating for 21 years, AirTran ceased operations in 2014. Why doesn’t the airline still exist today?

The airline’s principal hub was Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Photo: formulanone via Wikimedia Commons 

The establishment of AirTran

Let’s first take a brief look at how the airline came into being. First established as Conquest Sun Airlines in 1993, the carrier was purchased by the AirTran Corporation a year later and subsequently renamed.

What was first the merger of Destination Sun Airways and Conquest Airlines, AirTran’s parent company was acquired by ValuJet in 1997. An attempt by ValuJet to distance itself from a poor safety record, this resulted in ValuJet renaming itself AirTran Airlines, operating alongside AirTran Airways. Eventually, the two would combine under one FAA certificate.

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In terms of fleet development, a highlight for AirTran was its acquisition of Boeing 717s. The airline was the launch customer of the type and would operate the world’s largest fleet with a total of 89.

737-700 AirTrans
The Boeing 737-700 was AirTrans’ longest-range aircraft. Photo: Eddie Maloney via Wikimedia Commons

In 2004, Boeing even boasted that the airline had saved more than $3 million in fuel costs alone in its first year of 717-operation, adding that direct maintenance costs dropped an estimated 45%.

AirTran also operated longer-range 737-700s and would arrange for Ryan International Airlines to operate a few Airbus A320 jets on new flights to the US west coast prior to AirTran receiving its 737s.

Before being acquired by Southwest, AirTran had grown to serve over 70 cities across the country. Internationally, it would also serve destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico. Its peak would see the airline fly an impressive 700 flights per day, with over 8,500 crew members serving nearly 25 million passengers per year.

AirTran had been doing quite well at the time of Southwest Airline’s acquisition. Photo: Getty Images

The establishment of AirTran

While AirTran was growing and expanding its operations, another low-cost carrier was doing the same: Southwest Airlines. Announcing a merger in 2010, the deal, valued at $1.4 billion at the time, would close in 2011. The airlines would retain their separate identities for some time but would operate under a single Air Operators Certificate from 2012.

The last AirTrans revenue flight wouldn’t actually take place until the end of 2014. According to Southwest Airlines, this took place at 22:25 EST with a Boeing 717 as AirTran Airways Flight 1. It departed Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for Tampa International Airport.

This is how Southwest Airlines in 2014 explained its acquisition of AirTran:

“The acquisition of AirTran was a unique opportunity to extend the Southwest network into key markets it didn’t yet serve, such as Atlanta and the greater Washington, D.C., area, via Ronald Reagan National Airport. The integration gives Southwest the opportunity to serve Customers from 93 airports in the U.S. and near-international destinations, providing Customers more low-fare destinations as it expands the well-known ‘Southwest Effect’ to hundreds of additional low-fare itineraries for the traveling public.”

Despite AirTran’s size and national prominence, the offer by Southwest was just too lucrative to pass up. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

And what about AirTran’s aircraft?

With Southwest being an all-Boeing 737 carrier by that time, the old AirTran Boeing 717s needed to be ‘dealt with.’ Thus, the overwhelming majority of the airline’s jets were sold off to Delta Air Lines, with apparently just one going to Hawaiian Airlines. Many of these jets are now listed as stored due to the current global health crisis.

Data from Planespotters.net indicates that most of the carrier’s Boeing 737-700s conveniently transferred over to the Southwest fleet. However, it’s interesting to note that two went on to fly with airlines in Iraq while two others went to fly for the oil and gas industry- first with ConocoPhillips Aviation Alaska and then with BP Exploration Company (Colombia) Ltd. Of these two, one now flies with luxury charter airline Hillwood Airways.

Did you get a chance to fly with AirTran before it was bought up by Southwest? Share your experiences by leaving a comment!