AirTran Going Long on Long Hauls

Last Updated Mar 27, 2008 1:30 PM EDT

airtran_col.jpgIt's a rare sight these days to see any airline expanding with long haul domestic flights, but AirTran has decided to charge full speed ahead. This summer, the airline will operate two daily flights between Baltimore and both Seattle/Tacoma and Los Angeles.

Now, it's no secret that AirTran has been building up its presence in Baltimore, but it is a little surprising to see them adding gas-guzzling long haul flights at a time when fuel prices are so high. Either the airline thinks that its cost structure is low enough to make these work while others have failed, or it just don't have any better places to put its growing fleet of 737s right now. Let's hope for the airline's sake it's the former, because they have 60-odd planes left on their current order.

Last summer, AirTran flew the Baltimore-Seattle route, but it was a utilization flight. In other words, the plane left Baltimore in the evening after most of its flying would have been done for the day. Then it turned around on a redeye, ready to work the full day of flights the next day out of Baltimore. If you can get enough demand, this is a great strategy because the plane would otherwise remain on the ground not earning any money. AirTran will bring that flight back this year.

Also this year, however, the airline is going to add another daily flight, and more importantly, it's going to take a full day's aircraft time. A morning flight west with a return midday means that you use the full day of flying on that plane, so more cost will need to be allocated to justify operating the flight. I'm not convinced they can make that happen.

Meanwhile, there's the second daily LAX flight starting for the first time. This is a route littered with carcasses, and some unlikely ones at that. Currently, United flies the route twice a day, and AirTran had already announced a single daytime flight of their own. But back in the day this was a US Airways mainstay, and more recently, Southwest flew it, but they pulled out when they decided to pull back much of their long haul flying.

This announcement means that the airline will add a second daily flight, and this one will be a redeye. I wonder if bookings for the first trip are looking so good that they thought they could use another one. If that's the case, it's a rare sign of strength in the long haul domestic market these days.