Two dominant low-fare airlines that carry thousands of visitors to the Gulf Coast's three major airports are combining and tourism industry officials are watching closely.
Southwest Airlines announced that it plans to acquire AirTran for $1.4 billion. In some cases, the two airlines compete on some routes and are dominant carriers in Tampa and Fort Myers, leading to speculation about future service cuts and fare increases.
For example, Southwest and AirTran compete to fly passengers nonstop from Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers to Baltimore and Chicago. While Fort Myers airport executives say it's too early to tell the impact of the merger, it's possible that fares may be less competitive on those routes than they have in the past. Combined, Southwest and AirTran made up 28% of the passenger traffic in Fort Myers so far this year.
At Tampa International Airport, Southwest and AirTran are even more dominant. Together, the two low-cost airlines carried 39% of the passenger traffic last year. In fact, Southwest was the top passenger carrier at TIA with 31% of the traffic. TIA airport officials couldn't be reached, but Southwest and AirTran also compete in ferrying passengers from Tampa to markets such as Baltimore.
By contrast, Sarasota may be a beneficiary of increased service and lower fares.
Only AirTran serves Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, so Southwest could bring more connections and better fares. While Southwest could consolidate its operations in Tampa, Sarasota airport officials say AirTran's operation there is profitable. “You don't tend to kill what's operating in the black,” says Michael Walley, Sarasota airport's director of development and community relations.