AirTran plans to add 50 new planes
Discount airline has prospered since Sept. 11
By RICK BARRETT
Last Updated: June 19, 2003
AirTran Airways will more than double the size of its airplane fleet over the next five years at a cost of more than $2 billion, a company executive said Wednesday.
The Orlando, Fla., airline expects to decide by late summer whether the addition of as many as 100 airplanes will consist of Boeing 737s or Airbus A319s, said AirTran marketing director Tad Hutcheson.
AirTran held a press conference at Mitchell International Airport to discuss its non-stop service between Milwaukee and Baltimore, which began this month. Airline officials also discussed results of their first year of business in Milwaukee, which it marked this week.
In the past 12 months, AirTran has flown more than 200,000 passengers in, out and through Milwaukee, said Barry Bateman, airport executive director.
About 50% of the airline's passengers have been business travelers, Hutcheson added.
"It has been a perfect mix for us, especially given that we weren't sure what to expect," he said. Typically, business travelers are identified through purchases of last-minute, more expensive plane tickets. Much of AirTran's overall business comes from leisure travelers, who book the cheapest fares well in advance of their trips.
About 20% of AirTran's Milwaukee passengers have come from northern Illinois, a market that other airlines here also have been trying to tap.
"Typically, these people work for a Chicago company and live in the northern suburbs," Hutcheson said. "They once considered Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports to be their only flight options, but now they are driving to Mitchell."
AirTran is edging closer to a decision to acquire Boeing 737s or Airbus A319s over the next five years, a move that could more than double the airline's fleet of 70 planes.
AirTran would place a firm order for 50 planes, either Boeing or Airbus, with an option to acquire 50 more, Hutcheson said. The first plane would be delivered about a year from now, with the remaining planes delivered at the rate of about one a month up to five years.
AirTran's current fleet is dominated by new Boeing 717s, which seat 105 in coach class, 12 in business class and have a flight range of about 1,500 miles. The airline wants bigger planes that can fly longer distances, especially to the West Coast, Hutcheson said.
"We want the flexibility to fly anywhere," he said.
AirTran spent about $750,000 in advertising in its first year in Milwaukee, including ads placed in northern Illinois, Madison and the Fox Valley.
That is fairly typical for a new market, and the spending will taper off now that AirTran is better established here, Hutcheson said.
AirTran is well-known for its discount fares and competitive nature. It is one of a handful of airlines that have turned a profit since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and it has expanded its network even as other airlines have retrenched.
"We like to enter markets where airline passengers have been overcharged and underserved, and we still believe that Milwaukee is underserved," Hutcheson said.
The airline's overall business is up about 25% compared with a year ago, Hutcheson said.
AirTran has been sending more business to Appleton-based Air Wisconsin, which it uses for regional flights. By the end of the year, Air Wisconsin will put another four regional jets into service for AirTran, up from six planes it flies now as AirTran JetConnect.
Air Wisconsin's 50-seat regional jets fly out of Atlanta to other cities, including Milwaukee; Savannah, Ga.; Greensboro, N.C.; and Pensacola, Fla.
Air Wisconsin has been effective on short-haul routes and destinations that don't have enough passengers to fill Boeing 717s, Hutcheson said.
From the June 19, 2003 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel