AirTran Airways is preparing to start converting the first of its 50 Boeing 717 options as it talks to the Seattle-based company about taking at least three 717-200s intended for TWA this year. The moves come as part of a continuing planned expansion that will see the fleet grow to 73 in 2003 from a current 55 aircraft.


The Atlanta-based airline aims to begin firming up its first options by the end of June. The move is key to "funding" AirTran's East Coast expansion strategy which is centred on the development of a new hub at Washington Reagan (DCA). AirTran is seeking slots at DCA and other East Coast airports in return for consenting to the American Airlines take-over of TWA, and the United Airlines-US Airways merger. The resulting mega-carriers would, says AirTran, control more than 50% of the US market, and enjoy monopolies at several key eastern cities including Washington, Philadelphia, Charlotte and Pittsburgh.

AirTran says that if it was allowed to develop a second hub at DCA, it would generate more than $600 million worth of savings to Washington area commuters. Speaking at the Speednews suppliers conference AirTran chairman and chief executive Joe Leonard said: "We've let the mergers go for-ward, but only to create low-cost competition on the East Coast."

The DCA hub plan, if sanctioned, will allow AirTran to open over 25 new routes, around half of which will be to destinations in more than nine eastern states not served by the carrier.

Leonard believes the company's plans are backed by solid financial performance and continued stability, largely through a major re-capitalisation programme with Boeing which supplied $220 million of debt and equity financing. Acquisition of further 717s is planned to continue at the rate of at least 12 per year as the last four 737-200s are retired from the fleet by the end of the year.

Retirements of the first of its 33 DC-9-30s are also expected to start late next year, Leonard says. Excluding any aircraft unwanted by American, AirTran expects its 717 fleet to grow to 27 by the end of the year, and to 39 a year later. It will operate 50 by the end of 2003, though possibly more if the talks with Boeing progress.

Source: Flight International