A group of AirTran frequent flyers and business class customers has formed a group to petition Southwest to maintain AirTran’s business class seating and to maintain assigned seating after the merger.

AirTran offers an inexpensive upgrade to business class – 2×2 rather than 2×3 in economy on the 717 and 3×3 on the 737 that many business travelers have come to prefer.

Southwest offers only all coach seating, with no seat assignments in advance – merely a board by number system depending on check-in, business fares, frequent flyer status, or purchase of a lower boarding number.

The group’s website is www.airtransos.com and claims to have nearly 500 petition signers, 94% of whom vow to switch to another carrier if business class is discontinued.

This reflects the difficulties of merging carriers with disparate philosophies on seating and boarding policies. Southwest, which has been hampered in entering international markets due to computer systems deficiencies, has now acquired the more modern capabilities it needs from AirTran.

With capabilities for assigned seating and multiple classes, will Southwest join the rest of the industry in the modern age, or continue the “cattle call” by number that requires to hope that the type of seat they wanted is still available, particularly on non-originating flights that may have a substantial passenger load already on board?

AirTran also offered wi-fi and XM satellite radio on every flight, and has a unique frequent flyer program that allows flights anywhere in the world, not simply on AirTran that was a significant differentiator for frequent flyers. Will Southwest maintain those capabilities? Wi-fi, certainly. But XM and frequent flyer trips on other carriers are less likely to survive.

Just as frequent flyers hope that United won’t downgrade its service levels, this AirTran group is hoping that the tail can wag the dog at Southwest. Given Southwest’s history of success with one class service and a loyal following, it is unlikely that business class, assigned seats, XM radio or frequent flyer trips to anywhere will remain. It just may be a bit less convenient and less comfortable for premium class travelers who will need to find another carrier.

As one who likes the business class concept, as well as advance seat assignments so I can be the last one to board, I am empathetic to their plight, but don’t project a high probability for success.

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