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1:38 am
Tue January 17, 2012

Move Over, Delta: Southwest To Fly Out Of Atlanta

Originally published on Tue January 17, 2012 7:46 am

Southwest Airlines prides itself on being different from other carriers. Next month, it's going to have to highlight those differences when it starts flying out of Atlanta — home to Delta Air Lines and the country's busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International.

Southwest gained a foothold at Hartsfield after buying discount carrier AirTran last year. But winning over passengers could be a challenge.

The low-fare carrier also promotes itself as fun. There's a hit YouTube video from a couple of years ago in which passengers clap and tap their feet as a flight attendant raps the usually boring flight instructions. It's just the kind of unique experience Southwest likes to brag about.

"What's different about Southwest? Our legendary customer service, our low fares — all of that showcased by the people who make a real connection with our customers," says Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins.

Southwest doesn't have baggage fees or change fees, and that's a plus. But it doesn't have first-class or business-class seats — something most regular Delta business travelers expect. Hawkins says that shouldn't be a deal-breaker.

"We have all leather seating," he says. "We have open seating, we have orderly boarding, and, in droves, people are coming to Southwest Airlines for those reasons."

Big Challenge At Mega Airport

Ken Bernhardt, a marketing professor at Georgia State University, says Southwest has to have a couple of goals when entering the Atlanta market — primarily, retaining Air Tran customers. The second goal is even more challenging, he says: "They've got to get people to try it for the first time."

"Most people in Atlanta have never flown Southwest because they don't come into this market," Bernhardt says, "so they've got to get that initial trial."

Southwest has remained profitable because it turns planes around quickly and efficiently. Atlanta's mega airport presents a big challenge because it's often bogged down with long delays.

Still, Ray Neidl, an airline industry analyst with Maxim Group, says that shouldn't be a problem.

"They will have a little heartburn as they digest the Air Tran model, which was different, a little different than the Southwest model," he says. "But eventually, I think, it will be beneficial to Southwest."

A Delta spokesman says competition is nothing new, and the airline is confident its vast operation — which offers 1,000 flights a day to almost anywhere — will keep its customers. When Southwest starts serving Atlanta on Feb. 12, it will offer just 15 flights a day.

Convincing Passengers

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is almost always bustling. On a recent day, the rotunda underneath an enormous skylight is full of people waiting for flights.

Catherine Locker recently moved away from Atlanta for a new job, but she says she flies here often and is happy Delta will have competition.

"I think it's awesome because I live in Austin right now, and I'm always looking for cheap flights and I can never find them," she says, "so I'm grateful that they're coming to Atlanta."

But it's a tougher sell for Eric Goldschmidt, a Delta frequent flyer and Gold Medallion member.

"I'd be willing to try it," he says, "but I'm a Delta loyalist so switching over from one airline to another, it's going to have to be a big difference in fares."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: Southwest Airlines prides itself on being different from other carriers. Next month, it's going to have to highlight those differences when it starts flying out of Atlanta. That's Delta's hometown. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is also the country's busiest. Southwest gained a foothold there, after buying a discount carrier, Air Tran.

NPR's Kathy Lohr has more.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Southwest does offer low fares, but the airline also stresses it's fun to fly.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

DAVID HOLMES: There you go, keep that going. (Rapping) This is flight 372 on SWA. The flight attendants on board serving you today. Teresa in the middle, David in the back, my name is David and I'm here to tell you that.

LOHR: In the video, which was a hit on You Tube a couple of years ago, passengers clap and tap their feet as Southwest flight attendant David Holmes raps all the way through the usually boring flight instructions.

HOLMES: (Rapping) It's almost time to go so; I'm done with the rhyme. Thank you for the fact that I wasn't ignored this is Southwest Airlines. Welcome aboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LOHR: This is just the kind of unique experience Southwest likes to brag about.

BRAD HAWKINS: What's different about Southwest, our legendary customer service: our low fares. All of that showcased by the people who make a real connection with our customers.

LOHR: Brad Hawkins is a spokesman for Southwest. The low fare carrier doesn't have baggage fees or change fees and that's a plus, but it also doesn't have first class or business class seats - that something that most regular Delta business travelers expect. Hawkins says that shouldn't be a deal breaker.

HAWKINS: We have all leather seating, we have open seating, we have orderly boarding. And in droves, people are coming to Southwest Airlines for those reasons.

KEN BERNHARDT: I think there's a couple of things they have to do when they enter the Atlanta market.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Ken Bernhardt is a marketing professor at Georgia State University. He says the airline's first goal is retaining Air Tran customers, then he says...

BERNHARDT: They've got to get people to try it for the first time. Most people in Atlanta have never flown Southwest because they don't come into this market.

LOHR: Southwest has remained profitable because it turns planes around quickly and efficiently. But Atlanta's mega airport presents a big challenge because it's often bogged down with long delays. Still, Ray Neidl, an airline industry analyst with Maxim Group, says that shouldn't be problem.

RAY NEIDL: They will have a little heartburn as they digest the Air Tran model, which was different, a little different than the Southwest model. But eventually, I think, it will be beneficial to Southwest.

LOHR: Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is almost always bustling.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

LOHR: The rotunda underneath an enormous sky light is full of people waiting for flights. Catherine Locker recently moved away from Atlanta for a new job, but she says she flies here often and is happy Delta will have the competition.

CATHERINE LOCKER: I think it's awesome, because I live in Austin, right now, and I'm always looking for cheap flights and I can never find them. So I'm grateful they that they're coming to Atlanta.

LOHR: But it's a tougher sell for Eric Goldschmidt, a Delta frequent flyer and Gold Medallion member.

ERIC GOLDSCHMIDT: I've never flown Southwest, so I couldn't tell you. Hopefully the rates go down.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOHR: Would you be willing to try it?

GOLDSCHMIDT: Oh sure. I mean I'd be willing to try it, but I'm a Delta loyalist, so, you know, switching over from one airline to another it's going to have to be like a big difference in fares.

LOHR: A Delta spokesman says competition is nothing new, the airline is confident its vast operation, which offers 1,000 flights a day to almost anywhere, will keep its customers. Southwest begins service with just 15 flights a day.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.