Southwest talks AirTran, considers fleet expansion

DALLAS: Southwest Airlines sees a transformational opportunity in its pending acquisition of Orlando-based AirTran, and may seek agency support once the deal is finalized.

DALLAS: Southwest Airlines sees a transformational opportunity in its pending acquisition of Orlando-based AirTran, and may seek agency support once the deal is finalized.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration gave its OK on the deal, expected to go through by the second quarter.

Acquiring AirTran, which flies nationwide, as well as to Canada and the Caribbean, will be an opportunity for Southwest to look into international destinations, said Linda Rutherford, VP of communications and strategic outreach. Southwest is considering external support, though an RFP has not been issued.

“We're in the process right now of looking at agencies in Georgia, if we are successful in closing the AirTran acquisition,” said Rutherford. “We would obviously like to have some local market help there, similar to what we do with Linhart in Denver.”

The airline currently works with Dix & Eaton for strategic counsel, Dig Communications for the recently relaunched frequent flyer program Rapid Rewards, and Linhart PR for a community outreach program in Denver.

This week, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told Bloomberg's Businessweek that the airline is looking at the possibility to expand its fleet in 2013.

“Fleet growth for us is obviously a financial consideration,” said Rutherford. “We have to be prosperous in order to fund buying more Boeing 737s and actually growing the fleet versus buying new airplanes and retiring old ones if that makes sense.”

Southwest is not currently looking to grow its “stable of agencies to focus on fleet growth,” she said.

“We might tap into the existing relationships that we have to maybe think about fleet growth for instance on a labor and communications standpoint or a market growth standpoint and get some guidance, but we wouldn't look at either adding an AOR or another agency at this point,” Rutherford added.

The corporate strategy, she said, would be based on support of the continued transformation of the business, an initiative that began in 2007, which led to the launch of its assigned boarding method and the option to fly pets.

“Our communications has largely been centered on how we can continue to manage and control our costs, try to best predict the volatility of jet fuel prices, and then obviously expose our brand to as many people as possible from a marketing perspective,” said Rutherford. “That way we have the opportunity to grow and to buy aircraft and look at not only new destinations, but actually growing the complete and total fleet number.”

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