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AirTran Folds its wings

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It’s taken nearly four years, but Southwest Airlines Sunday completed its $1.4-billion acquisition of AirTran Airways with one last flight.

Cheers erupted as AirTran’s Boeing 717 took off Sunday from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport bound for Tampa. AirTran Flight 1 was long sold out, and more than 800 hopeful travelers added their names to the standby list. 

Southwest’s Bob Jordan has been running AirTran’s operations for the past few years.  Over a scratchy PA system, he thanked AirTran’s employees. 

“This is awesome. It’s a fantastic way to commemorate this last flight, and a fantastic way to move forward as one awesome company,” he said. 

The journey traced ValuJet’s 1993 inaugural flight. After a deadly crash in the Florida Everglades in 1998, ValuJet struggled to survive. It eventually re-emerged as AirTran. 

Trish Krider worked as a flight attendant under both names. She says AirTran’s final moment is a proud one. 

“The fact we fought from ValuJet all the way to where we are, to be a company that Southwest wanted to own, is just the most amazing, amazing experience,” Krider said after the flight landed in Tampa. 

By airline standards, Southwest’s merger with AirTran was smooth. For one thing, there were no layoffs. 

AirTran flight attendant Tana Thomas says the airlines’ family-like corporate cultures were a lot alike. And that helped. 

“I see their scrappiness being one and the same,” she said. “It’s like they’re on full-throttle.” 

The merger allowed Southwest access to key markets, like Washington-National and Atlanta. The merger also opened up international routes for the first time. 

And although it’s been a long merger, it’s proving to be a profitable one. Air Transport World just named Southwest its airline of the year. And the Dallas-based carrier’s stock was the year’s best performer on the S&P 500.

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