Can Southwest learn anything from AirTran?

Different liveries of Southwest Boeing 737's welcome visitors at Southwest's Dallas headquarters. Once it acquires AirTran Airways, plans are to hang that airline's livery, too.

AirTran Captain "Mad Dog" Watson greets all his passengers with sounds from his harmonica. He says AirTran's workers are "scrappy," and mirror the "Warrior Spirit" of Southwest employees.

Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, was recently honored by the Dallas Business Journal as "CEO of the Year."

Every new hire receives a T-shirt, a lanyard, a pin, and a handwritten note from a fellow Southwest employee.

Jeremy Hobson: Air Tran and Southwest Airlines are waiting for clearance from the Justice Department after Air Tran Shareholders gave the merger an OK earlier this week. But the big task remains: Making these two very different airlines into one. Think of Southwest as the Hawaiian shirt of the airline industry -- comfortable and familiar. And AirTran as the Sears suit -- businesslike, affordable, no frills.

From WABE in Atlanta, Jim Burress reports on the efforts to coordinate that outfit.


Harmonica music

Jim Burress: On this recent flight out of Dallas, Captain "Mad Dog" Watson greets passengers just like he always does.

Just another Southwest pilot? Nope. "Mad Dog" flies for AirTran.

Bob Fornaro is that company's CEO. He says the two airlines' cultures are already a lot alike.

Bob Fornaro: The key thing is, I think the attitudes are similar, in terms of the way we focus on the customer. And that's the most important.

Fornaro is right -- good customer service is a key goal at both airlines. But it's a poorly kept secret that at Southwest, customers actually come second. Employees come first, explains Cheryl Hughey, Southwest's director of culture services.

Cheryl Hughey: We know if we're doing the right thing for our employees, that ultimately it'll be the right thing for our business, which is ultimately the right thing for our customers.

Southwest generally pays its employees better. It's not facing contentious labor disputes, like AirTran. And in the most turbulent economic times, Southwest still makes money. But Southwest CEO Gary Kelly says his airline can still pick up a few pointers from AirTran.

Gary Kelly: We want to be very measured about any radical changes that we're contemplating, because what they've got works pretty darn good.

AirTran flies its planes more full, more often, and with less overhead than Southwest -- all things Kelly says his airline needs to do better in order to grow.

Kelly: This is a great opportunity for us to do great things for our culture, for our business, to grow Southwest Airlines, and in places I don't think we could otherwise access.

Southwest will instantly add Caribbean destinations once it acquires AirTran. But Mexico and Canada could soon be on the horizon.

In Atlanta, I'm Jim Burress for Marketplace.

About the author

Jim Burress is a reporter for WABE in Atlanta.

AirTran Captain "Mad Dog" Watson greets all his passengers with sounds from his harmonica. He says AirTran's workers are "scrappy," and mirror the "Warrior Spirit" of Southwest employees.

Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, was recently honored by the Dallas Business Journal as "CEO of the Year."

Every new hire receives a T-shirt, a lanyard, a pin, and a handwritten note from a fellow Southwest employee.

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