Trips home to Ohio to visit family have become much easier for Philip Stoecker and Stephanie Orphan with AirTran and Southwest flights at the Akron-Canton Airport.
Stoecker, who lives in New York City, comes home six to seven times a year to visit his parents in Coshocton.
“This is a much better option for my family. My parents love coming here,” Stoecker said as he waited for a flight to New York’s LaGuardia airport. Stoecker said he sometimes flies into Columbus, but he and his parents prefer the convenience of the Akron-Canton Airport, which is about an hour drive.
For Orphan, a Canton native who also lives in New York City, having Southwest at Akron-Canton makes it easy and cheap to visit her mother.
When Orphan lived in New Jersey, she would fly into Cleveland and pay $500 a ticket. Her fares are much more affordable now, she said.
“I can pretty much always count on a reasonable fare, and sometimes a supersonic-low fare,” she said.
Monday morning, Southwest and the airport celebrated the biggest conversion of AirTran flights to the new carrier planes with what they called the “Fab Four” locations: Boston, New York’s LaGuardia, Orlando and a second seasonal route to Denver.
“Today, we are trying to continue a low-fare revolution,” Southwest Vice President of Airport Affairs Bob Montgomery said during a news conference.
Montgomery was joined by officials representing the airport and local county government and business as CAK gave waiting passengers free snacks from the four destinations and music by a Beatles cover band.
Southwest purchased AirTran in 2011 and Southwest, the low-fare airline based in Dallas, arrived at CAK in 2012. All AirTran employees at the airport already have become Southwest employees, and about 30 more people were added for a total of 75, officials said.
Monday’s conversion begins what Montgomery calls a series of waves converting the last of the AirTran flights and planes out of Akron-Canton to the larger, blue and orange Southwest 737s, which hold 145 people instead of the 117 people on AirTran’s planes.
The final AirTran conversion will be flights to Atlanta on Nov. 1 and the beginning of Southwest’s newest nonstop daily flight to the coveted Washington, D.C., Ronald Reagan National Airport on Nov. 2.
Akron-Canton Airport is one of a few to be blessed to not only keep all of its flights in the transition from AirTran to Southwest destinations, but also to get a new destination in the fall, said Kristie Van Auken, the airport’s senior vice president and chief marketing communications officer.
“We’re excited that we’ve kept these great destinations. A lot of AirTran destinations saw pretty significant service [declines],” she said, citing as an example Dayton’s airport recently losing its AirTran flights to Atlanta.
Additionally, Akron-Canton is the only non-hub Southwest city that will gain the Washington, D.C., flight, she said.
In an interview before the news conference, Montgomery said he was impressed with his first visit to Akron-Canton.
AirTran “showed us the benefits of Akron-Canton and that we need to continue that service,” he said.
Having two airports in Northeast Ohio — CAK and Cleveland Hopkins International Airport — with Southwest service is not unusual, Montgomery said. The two markets have service to different destinations and don’t overlap much, he said.
Currently, Cleveland totals 14 daily Southwest flights to four destinations — Nashville, Baltimore Washington International Airport, Chicago’s Midway and Las Vegas. Akron-Canton has more destinations with 13 daily flights to Boston, New York’s LaGuardia, Orlando, Denver, Atlanta, and Tampa and (seasonally) Fort Myers., Fla., and the upcoming Washington flight.
While airlines always are looking to build upon opportunities, Montgomery said, United’s pullout from Cleveland doesn’t present as many opportunities for Southwest. United was offering connections, while Southwest likes to try to offer direct flights for passengers, he said.
50 percent of customers
Akron-Canton Airport President and CEO Rick McQueen said nearly 900,000 customers are flying Southwest and AirTran from the airport each year, which represents 50 percent of the airport’s total customers. Eight of the 13 flights now will be on Southwest planes, he said.
Van Auken said educational and marketing efforts, including a grass-roots campaign called #LUVCAK this spring by a collaboration of area business leaders to educate customers to look for flights directly via www.Southwest.com, have helped spread the word. Southwest does not participate in popular online flight aggregation websites for tickets.
While the #LUVCAK campaign fell short of its goal to sign up 20,000 local passengers to Southwest’s Rapid Rewards loyalty program — the campaign signed up 12,000 — the effort still was deemed a success and was critical to show the area’s strength to Southwest, she said.
While the conversion is exciting, it’s also bittersweet to see AirTran’s name and planes begin to disappear from the airport, Van Auken said.
“They put us on the map, and they positioned us for success for the long run. That’s the airline that really made it possible for Southwest to be successful in the future,” said Van Auken, who said she will be buying a ticket for the last AirTran flight to Atlanta.
“There’s no question we had an unbelievable run with AirTran. We also can’t just be stuck in the past. We’re ready for a vibrant future with Southwest,” she said.