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WSJ on SWA/AT Merger

Britpilot

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The wedding of Southwest and AirTran airlines is now in its third year. For many of the carriers' regular passengers, the honeymoon ended long ago.
As the two airlines, which combined carry more domestic passengers than any other, have started splicing together their flight schedules this year, travelers say Southwest Airlines LUV -3.41% agents struggle with AirTran Airways tickets and vice versa, sometimes leaving passengers who have been delayed and need rebooking in the lurch.

Last year United drove its customers crazy as it tried to line up its systems with Continental's. Now customers are complaining about the effects of the marriage of Southwest and AirTran. Scott McCartney looks at the details.

Different prices and seat availability sometimes show up for the same flight on Southwest's and AirTran's online sites. Buying early boarding privileges on Southwest doesn't get you early boarding on connecting AirTran flights. Frequent-flier credits remain separate and Southwest companion passes, awarded to top frequent fliers, can't be used on AirTran.

Merging airlines often equals delay, disruption and disappointment for travelers. The troubles at Southwest and AirTran, both regularly hailed for good service, offer a cautionary tale of what could be ahead for customers of American Airlines and US Airways, LCC -0.92% an even larger merger pending government approval.

In the spring and summer of 2012, United and Continental airlines suffered late flights, lost reservations, chaotic seat assignments and surging customer complaints when they combined into one reservation system. And Southwest and AirTran, which opted to go unusually slow with their combination to avoid problems, haven't even reached that point yet.

"It's very fragmented. All this talk about 'one airline' is a broken promise," said John Sullivan, a computer consultant who flies every week on AirTran from Dayton, Ohio, to Baltimore and connects on Southwest to Albany, N.Y.


Since late May, his bag has been lost twice and when his AirTran flight arrived late a connection was missed. Southwest agents "look at me like I'm from a different planet," he said.

Most frustrating: He took vouchers for two free round trips from AirTran to give up his seat on an overbooked flight so his wife could join him on business trips to Albany. When he called AirTran to redeem the vouchers, the agent said the airline didn't fly to Albany. He told her they did and she said no, that was Southwest and the vouchers couldn't be used on Southwest.

"I have learned just to calm myself and lower expectations," he said.

Southwest says the merger is on track and the airline is working through problems. "We know there have been some challenges in the background and we know they have bled out into some issues for our customers," Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said.

Southwest and AirTran are mishandling bags (not delivering them on the same flight as their owners) more frequently as the airlines connect bags between each other. In April and May, the most recent months reported by the Department of Transportation, the mishandled bag rate for AirTran more than doubled from the same period last year. Southwest was up 24% in May and 38% in April. Overbooking and complaints are up, too, though still lower than those for many competitors.


The two discount airlines face huge merger hurdles largely because Southwest lacks a reservation system capable of handling many aspects of AirTran's business, such as international flights.

So Southwest, which acquired AirTran in May 2011, decided on a go-slow approach. After two years, only 14 of the more than 50 AirTran destinations have been moved under Southwest's umbrella. The two basically still operate as separate airlines and will until the end of 2014. Ticket counters have been pushed side-by-side at many airports. Kiosks offer check-in on either airline. Connecting passengers between the airlines on one ticket started in January and rolled out fully in May.

Instead of merging into one computer system, Southwest, for now, has agents of both airlines trying to work two reservation systems on different windows of their computer screens so one airline can check in customers from the other. "We have our people moving between both systems," Mr. Hawkins said.

Southwest says it will have a unified system, new to both airlines, in place by the end of next year. The company is both folding AirTran into Southwest, mostly by replacing AirTran planes with new Southwest jets as they are delivered from Boeing Co., BA -0.97% and at the same time undertaking a companywide makeover.

Problems have been most noticeable when bad weather disrupts operations, Mr. Hawkins said, and employees have to deal with rescheduling passengers. Agents can't see all possible alternative flights in one place and have to check route by route to find open seats for stranded customers.

"It's enormously complicated," he said of the merger integration.

Regular Southwest fliers should take extra sanity-saving precautions in the short term. It helps to leave lots of time to connect between Southwest and AirTran flights so that delays don't lead to missed connections. Avoid checking bags on trips with AirTran-Southwest connections. And carry your flight paperwork to help agents find confirmation numbers and itineraries.

Travelers say even though the airlines are trying to sell seamless travel together, lots of disconnects remain.

Book an AirTran flight through Southwest?the two airlines now code-share so AirTran flights carry a Southwest flight number and Southwest flights can be ticketed as an AirTran flight number?and you won't have to pay fees to check bags. (AirTran does charge fees to check bags to AirTran-booked customers.) But if you buy your ticket this way, you can't reserve seats on those AirTran flights.

Southwest hasn't developed a mobile phone app for AirTran, since the airline will be phased out (though it does have a robust app of its own where you can see AirTran flights).

Top-tier frequent fliers now get reciprocal benefits and frequent-flier points can be exchanged if customers call and ask for a transfer, Mr. Hawkins said. But some issues, like the vouchers, haven't been solved yet, he said. "There is an appreciable partition between the two carriers and there are some things we have not been able to break through the brick wall," he said.

For some AirTran loyalists, the slow phasing out of their airline has been hard to watch. AirTran had a strong following because upgrades to its business-class seats were relatively easy for business travelers to get.

No more, as Southwest's top-level customers have started flying more trips on AirTran planes, making upgrades harder to get. Eventually Southwest will end all upgrade possibilities, since it only flies with coach seats. Even small changes have hurt, such as switching AirTran business-class snacks to Southwest peanuts and crackers.

And Southwest regulars struggle when flying AirTran. Gary Zeune, a frequent traveler from Powell, Ohio, paid $12.50 on a recent trip and got early boarding on his first flight, on Southwest. When he got to his connecting AirTran flight, he was in Group 7. "It bothers me that they charged me the whole $12.50 and I only got half of it," he said.

David LaRue of Fort Worth, Texas, says he hasn't been able to use his Southwest frequent-flier points for international trips on AirTran. And he can't use his Southwest companion pass to take people with him on AirTran flights.

He got so mad bouncing between agents of both airlines trying to book trips that he offered to patch them together in a conference call. The agents declined.

"Right now, it's pretty rough. They have dragged their heels so long to integrate that it's frustrating. I don't understand why," he said.

Write to Scott McCartney at middleseat@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared July 18, 2013, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Airline Mergers and Aggravations.
 

General Lee

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"Right now, it's pretty rough. They have dragged their heels so long to integrate that it's frustrating. I don't understand why," he said.


Wait, who said that? An AT pilot?????? What did you Corndogs agree to give GK in future contract talks anyway?



Bye Bye----General Lee
 
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labbats

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This message is hidden because General Lee is on your ignore list.
 

Sy-bill

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Wait, who said that? An AT pilot?????? What did you Corndogs agree to give GK in future contract talks anyway?



Bye Bye----General Lee

Wouldn't matter. Nothing will ever trump the agreement to outsource pilot jobs.

Your group forever will keep wages and benefits below historical levels in every category of airlines.

Just continue to try and tell your selfish a$$ otherwise.
 

General Lee

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Wouldn't matter. Nothing will ever trump the agreement to outsource pilot jobs.

Your group forever will keep wages and benefits below historical levels in every category of airlines.

Just continue to try and tell your selfish a$$ otherwise.

How about newhire pay? $20 more per hour than the other legacies, and by 2015 it will start at $71 an hour. A 20% raise over a 3 year contract, with scope enhancements to boot. No PFT. You can't support your argument.


Bye Bye---General Lee
 

waveflyer

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Dalpa Sellout who can't think long term_
Nobody cares what you think about swa GL
 

General Lee

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Dalpa Sellout who can't think long term_
Nobody cares what you think about swa GL

You guys have done a poor job of merging, and you treated the AT pilots poorly too. No LUV there, and they probably know that. Oh well. At least they didn't PFT.......


Bye Bye---General Lee
 

freightdogfred

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Give it a rest General this pot's been stirred enough.
 

General Lee

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Give it a rest General this pot's been stirred enough.

Oh, it has, but Wavey needs some reminding, and we all know it's true.


Bye Bye---General Lee
 
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Tripower455

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Lots..
 

texman

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You guys have done a poor job of merging, and you treated the AT pilots poorly too. No LUV there, and they probably know that. Oh well. At least they didn't PFT.......


Bye Bye---General Lee

Some did go to Gulfstream Airlines, just saying. I guess we are a big family of PFT's. ;) Have a chump of a day Gen.
 

General Lee

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Some did go to Gulfstream Airlines, just saying. I guess we are a big family of PFT's. ;) Have a chump of a day Gen.

True, but SWA could afford to pay for training. Gulfstream, probably not. (Didn't they go BK before turning into Silver Airways?). Thanks for trying, but it's not the same chief. It's great if you think that will lead you to great pay eventually, but we all know that isn't necessary. Heck, they can afford it with the AT guys, right? Have a great one!


Bye Bye---General Lee
 
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General Lee

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SW guys don't and have never paid a dime for their training.

If you are hired without a 737 type, do you have to pay to get one prior to class?


Bye Bye---General Lee
 

humveedriver

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Hopefully the folks who are responsible for making this acquisition/merger/phasing out process, take this article to heart. Sort of weird that this thread immediately focused on Delta scope and SWA type requirement so quickly. This is why I've disengaged mostly from major cable news outlets and politics. It's all about talking points. You guys sound like talking heads. After reading this article I'm more concerned about our passengers and what our management is going to do to fix the issues, then Delta's contract and the cost of Higher Powers type program :/
 

humveedriver

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Nope, you just have to have one. You couldn't pay SW a dime if you wanted to. We're not Valuejet! ;)

Or Kiwi for that matter. But don't let any of us stop you kids from playing who's the biggest whore. Apparently it's the only game that matters.
 

SWAdude

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You guys have done a poor job of merging, and you treated the AT pilots poorly too. No LUV there, and they probably know that. Oh well. At least they didn't PFT.......


Bye Bye---General Lee

Treated the AT guys poorly.......rrrrright.

How about your outsourcing of jobs. You have treated the entire profession poorly. Defend it all you want. You just set back this profession 30 years. I kind of look at your work group like how one would look at a scab. Thats just me though.
 
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carl p

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It is unfortunate that our passengers are feeling the pain of this integration. I will always believe that the agonizingly slow pace has made it worse for our customers and the employees.
 
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