AirTran to offer six BWI flights

Low-fare carrier to fly 3 times daily to Boston, Atlanta

Could aid airport recovery

Service to start as MetroJet begins cutting 49 daily runs

October 09, 2001|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

AirTran Airways said yesterday that it will begin offering daily flights from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Boston and Atlanta, giving the state-owned airport a rare bit of good news in the aftermath of terrorist attacks that have devastated the domestic travel industry.

The Orlando, Fla.-based low-fare carrier will start with three flights per day to each of the two cities, helping to fill some of the gap that will be left when US Airways, the second-busiest carrier at BWI, eliminates its Baltimore-based MetroJet fleet beginning in December. US Airways officials have said the cutbacks will result in the loss of 49 daily flights at BWI and will cost the area at least 800 aviation jobs.

AirTran will begin service Dec. 12, just as MetroJet is beginning to withdraw. The deal will result in about 25 to 30 jobs, a spokesman for the airline estimated. Gov. Parris N. Glendening is scheduled to announce the new service at a news conference in BWI's observation gallery this morning. State transportation officials were not available for comment yesterday.

"We've been considering it for quite some time, and we think it's a perfect opportunity for us to start service between our hub in Atlanta and a city like Baltimore," said Tad Hutcheson, the AirTran spokesman.

While not adding a large number of flights, the deal will help BWI recover some of the millions of dollars it has lost as passenger traffic has fallen after the terrorist attacks last month in New York and Washington. Major carriers have announced cutbacks of 20 percent and more since then in a bid to reduce costs.

Hutcheson could not provide details yesterday on what incentives the state offered AirTran in exchange for launching the service. In recent deals, the state enticed international air carriers Aer Lingus and Ghana Airways with a break on landing fees and help with marketing.

"They understand what it takes to get new airlines," Hutcheson said of BWI. "They made it very attractive for us."

Industry analysts said the move by AirTran was likely in response to US Airways' decision to eliminate its MetroJet service, which has struggled for years to compete against low-fare carrier Southwest Airlines. AirTran is among a small number of low-cost carriers that have tried to emulate Dallas-based Southwest's leisure-focused business model. But unlike MetroJet, AirTran has done a better job of keeping its costs low while avoiding going head to head with Southwest, the undisputed low-fare leader.

"They [Southwest] don't serve Atlanta, and that's our main route," Hutcheson said. "And they don't serve Boston, so there's no overlap."

The arrival of AirTran will help BWI maintain its reputation as the low-fare capital of the mid-Atlantic, analysts said.

`Looking for weaknesses'

"That should be a good market for [AirTran]," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. "I think they're looking for weaknesses, and I think US Airways and the closure of MetroJet is a weakness, so they're trying to fill in those gaps."

Like Southwest, AirTran has held up better than most airlines since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The airline was quick to cut costs after passenger loads plunged to 55.1 percent last month. AirTran executives trimmed their salaries and secured pay cuts from pilots and mechanics unions in a bid to reduce payroll by 20 percent. The airline's biggest creditor is Boeing Co., which has been fueling AirTran's recent growth with the delivery of one 117-seat Boeing 717 monthly.

`A very important customer'

"They're a very important customer for Boeing, so Boeing will keep them healthy. They cannot afford to lose them," said Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University

Jenkins said AirTran is in a financial condition strong enough to be positioned to make some strategic moves as a result of the recent market downturn.

"They will take advantage of this to do some things they otherwise wouldn't have done," he said.

AirTran offers discount fares to mostly leisure destinations in the Northeast and Southeast. It serves 35 cities and is the second-largest carrier, behind Delta, at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport. Cities in its network include Tampa, Miami and Orlando in Florida; New Orleans; Dallas/Fort Worth; Memphis, Tenn.; New York; Philadelphia; and Chicago. The airline offers seven daily flights to Atlanta from Washington Dulles International Airport.

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