Move Over Delta, Southwest To Fly Out Of Atlanta

Next month, Southwest Airlines, will tackle a new market. Atlanta is not only home to the world’s busiest airport. It’s also the hometown of Delta Air Lines. Southwest, which bought Air Tran last year, will try to play up the differences between itself and Delta.

Southwest offers low fares, but the airline will also stress that it’s fun to fly.

For proof, there’s a hit YouTube video from a couple of years ago in which passengers clap and tap their feet as Southwest flight attendant David Holmes raps all the way through the usually boring flight instructions.

This is just the kind of unique experience Southwest likes to brag about.

“What’s different about Southwest?” Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest, says, “Our legendary customer service, our low fares — all of that showcased by the people who make a real connection with our customers.”

The low fare carrier doesn’t have baggage fees or change fees, and that’s a plus. But it also doesn’t have first class or business class seats — something that most regular Delta business travelers expect. Hawkins says that shouldn’t be a deal breaker.

“We have all leather seating,” he says. “We have open seating, we have orderly boarding and in droves, people are coming to Southwest Airlines for those reasons.”

Big Challenge At Mega Airport

“I think there’s a couple of things they have to do when they enter the Atlanta market,” says Ken Bernhardt, a marketing professor at Georgia State University.

He says the airline’s first goal is retaining Air Tran customers.

Bernhardt says the second goal is even more challenging: “They’ve got to get people to try it for the first time.”

“Most people in Atlanta have never flown Southwest because they don’t come into this market,” he says, “So they’ve got to get that initial trial.”

Southwest has remained profitable because it turns planes around quickly and efficiently. But Atlanta’s mega airport presents a big challenge because it’s often bogged down with long delays. Still, Ray Neidl, an airline industry analyst with Maxim Group, says that shouldn’t be problem.

“They will have a little heartburn as they digest the Air Tran model which was different, a little different than the Southwest model,” he says, “But eventually, I think, it will be beneficial to Southwest.”

Convincing Passengers

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is almost always bustling. The rotunda underneath an enormous sky light is full of people waiting for flights.

Catherine Locker recently moved away from Atlanta for a new job, but she says she flies here often and is happy Delta will have the competition.

She says, “I think it’s awesome because I live in Austin right now, and I’m always looking for cheap flights, and I can never find them so I’m grateful that they’re coming to Atlanta.”

But it’s a tougher sell for Eric Goldschmidt, who’s a Delta frequent flyer and Gold Medallion member.

“I’d be willing to try it,” he says, “But I’m a Delta loyalist so switching over from one airline to another it’s going to have to be a big difference in fares.”

A Delta spokesman says competition is nothing new and the airline is confident its vast operation — which offers 1000 flights a day to almost anywhere — will keep its customers.

With just 15 flights a day, Southwest will start serving Atlanta on Feb. 12.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.