Southwest Shifts Atlanta Flights in Sharper Delta Rivalry

Southwest Airlines Co. is shifting its flight strategy at the Atlanta airport, the world’s busiest, in an escalating challenge to larger Delta Air Lines Inc. for local traffic.

No more than 20 planes will be on the ground at any one time instead of 30 now, so the daily schedule of 175 flights can be spread more evenly into times desirable for business fliers, Dallas-based Southwest said today. The new timetable will take effect in November.

Southwest’s changes will adapt Atlanta to the point-to-point flying model, instead of using the airport as a base to collect passengers bound for other hubs. That was the approach at AirTran Holdings Inc., which Southwest acquired in 2011 to grab a foothold in Delta’s home airport.

“It’s going to allow us to compete even more effectively with Delta,” Chief Commercial Officer Bob Jordan said in an interview. “We’re doing really well today, actually gaining local market share. That’s the name of the game. It’s higher-yielding passengers too.”

Delta is the world’s second-biggest carrier by passenger traffic, while Southwest is No. 4 in the U.S. Even after adding AirTran and a network that includes service to Mexico and the Caribbean, almost all of Southwest’s flights are in the U.S., making it the largest airline on domestic routes by passengers.

AirTran had half its capacity in Atlanta in an operation that was “not successful,” Chief Executive Gary Kelly said.

Competitive Schedule

“We will have a more competitive local schedule to compete in Atlanta and for customers flying to Atlanta,” Kelly said in an interview. “My prediction is we will win a lot more customers.”

For example, the current timetable calls for three Atlanta departures a day to Kansas City, Missouri, at 10 a.m., 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., said Jordan, who also runs the AirTran unit. The new lineup will put those flights at 8 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., meeting business fliers’ needs, he said.

Corporate passengers are prized by airlines because they typically fly the most and do so on short notice, paying the highest fares.

“Our Atlanta customers, particularly business travelers, choose to fly Delta because we offer what other airlines can’t,” said Trebor Banstetter, a Delta spokesman. He cited 1,000 daily nonstops from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to more than 200 destinations.

Delta dominates Atlanta with 66 percent of passengers there in the 12 months ended in January, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Southwest and AirTran combined had about 16 percent.

Southwest’s move will eliminate 300 jobs for ground workers, who will be offered transfers, Kelly said. The change puts Atlanta staffing in line with other cities in the carrier’s system, Kelly said.

“We’ll find them a job,” he said of displaced workers. “In fact, we have been holding off filling positions throughout the company to make sure we have spots for everybody.”

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