Buh-bye, bag fees? What the Southwest-AirTran merger really means for passengers

By | September 27th, 2010

This morning’s big news — some observers have even called it “shocking” — is that discount carriers Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways are headed to the altar in a $1.4 billion merger.

I’ve already received numerous questions about what this will mean for passengers. The answer? It’s a good news/bad news situation, probably.

But let’s begin with a short video (above) from earlier this year, when Southwest took aim at AirTran for its baggage fees. This was part of a series of commercials in which Southwest tweaked its bride-to-be. Funny, how things change. They must have known back then that a merger was a possibility. And yet …

Here’s what we know: According to a news release, AirTran is going to be absorbed into Southwest. Here’s what it would mean, specifically:

1. Bag fees

Southwest doesn’t charge a bag fee for the first or second checked bag; AirTran charges $20 for the first checked bag, $25 for the second and $50 for additional bags. Southwest intends to do away with the AirTran bag fees.

2. Change fees

Southwest doesn’t charge change fees. AirTran charges a $75 for any changes made after purchase. These fees, too, are being eliminated.

3. Assigned seats

Southwest does not assign seats. AirTran does offer seat assignments, including business class and coach. Southwest says assigned seats will be phased out.

4. Dual class service

Southwest offers one class of service. AirTran offers business class and coach. Not anymore. After the merger, it’ll be a one-class configuration.

What do you think? A quick poll of more than 200 readers found a majority (about 80 percent) thought the merger would be good for air travelers.

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Before I tell you what I think of the deal, let’s listen to what some others are saying about it.

Over at the Atlantic, Daniel Indiviglio makes a good point: Ticket prices will probably take off if this merger is consummated.

What’s good news for Southwest is probably bad news for consumers. This isn’t the first big news of major airline mergers recently. Earlier this month, shareholders approved the merger of Continental and United, forming the world’s largest airline.

The Southwest-AirTran union is bad for consumers for the same reason as Continental-United. It will likely result in higher ticket prices.

Consumer advocate Clark Howard has a different view. He can’t see a “down” side to the merger.

I am just ecstatic. It’s like my birthday and my wedding day, the whole thing at once. This is really big. Southwest is the most important player in the airline industry and Atlanta is the biggest airport operation in the country.

The Consumerist’s take on the issue was a little bit snarkier:

Overweight people wearing rude tshirts or skimpy clothes will soon have fewer flying options, now that Southwest Airlines is buying AirTran.

Spirit is expected to respond by merging with an ICBM manufacturer to develop flights that will just jam all the passengers in a tube and rocket them across the country.

Very funny.

So what’s the bottom line for passengers? We just don’t know. Both airlines have relatively good reputations for customer service and low fares, but I believe fewer choices always results in higher prices. Point given to the Atlantic.

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I also understand Howard’s position. Atlanta could sure use a little Southwest love.

But I don’t see how this merger, if it happens, will result in any seismic shift in the way people fly. So I’m staying away from the hyperbole on this story.

My biggest concern here is that AirTran’s corporate culture (which never was shy about charging customers fees) will find its way into Southwest’s business. That would make the commercial I showed at the top of this post very ironic, indeed.

We’ll have to see what happens.

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