Airline consultant: Southwest Airlines likely to stay in Wichita

Southwest Airlines will likely keep service in Wichita after the discount carrier closes a deal to buy AirTran Airways, an airline consultant says.

"Only because you (Wichita) drag in passengers that are business travelers from all over the country," said Boyd Group airline analyst Mike Boyd. "Business travelers are what (airlines) want. If you were a vacation destination, I'd say the writing's on the wall."

AirTran serves Wichita with three flights a day to Atlanta.

One question is whether Southwest will continue in markets where AirTran gets a subsidy to underwrite losses, as it does in Wichita, Boyd said.

AirTran has collected revenue guarantees each of the eight years it's had service in Wichita.

"If AirTran cannot make a profit in Wichita, there's no way Southwest can. Southwest has higher costs (than AirTran)," Boyd said. "You don't have enough traffic."

Still, Boyd doesn't expect Southwest to pull the Wichita service.

"At worst, it will be a wash," Boyd said.

City manager Robert Layton said it is too early to speculate what the change will mean to the Wichita market.

"I'm sure there'll be a lot of discussions with the merged carrier between now and then," Layton said. "We're very hopeful that we're going to maintain a low-cost carrier."

Randy Jarman drove from Tulsa to Wichita on Monday to catch AirTran's afternoon flight to Atlanta for a business trip.

"AirTran and Southwest are the two best airlines," Jarman said. "This is a real positive partnership."

Both offer attractive fares, but Jarman drives to Wichita for AirTran because Southwest doesn't offer direct flights to Atlanta from Tulsa.

Steve Haworth took AirTran's afternoon flight from Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

"It would be great," Haworth said when he heard the news of the acquisition.

"Those are two of my favorite airlines because they have a lot of Boeing aircraft," said Haworth, a former Boeing employee who now lives in Connecticut.

And the fares are attractive.

The transaction for Southwest to buy AirTran is valued at more than $1.37 billion. Including AirTran's debt and capitalized aircraft operating leases, the truncation is valued at $3.42 billion.

The deal is expected to close in the first half of 2011, but it will be 2012 before the airlines' will be fully integrated.

Until the acquisition is finalized, both carriers will continue to operate independently.

Southwest and AirTran together serve 106 U.S. cities along with Mexico and the Caribbean with 685 all-Boeing aircraft.

Together, they employ 43,000 people.

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