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Southwest plans to keep AirTran’s Boeing 717 fleet

Southwest executives have confirmed that it plans to operate AirTran's 86 Boeing 717s once its acquisition of AirTran closes and the Atlanta-hubbed carrier is folded into the Southwest brand.

Southwest today unveiled plans to acquire AirTran through a combination of cash and common stock.

Both carriers operate the 737-700, and Southwest is evaluating adding the larger -800 to its fleet. Southwest also operates 737-300s/500s.

During a call with media to discuss the acquisition Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said the carrier has decided it wants to keep and operate the 717, and will operate the smaller aircraft in a single 117-seat configuration. Currently AirTran operates its 117-seat 717s in a dual class offering.

Kelly acknowledges the addition of the 717 requires a different type crew rating and establishing how the aircraft is scheduled into operations. But he believes the 86 aircraft offer enough scale and says Southwest has the ability to incorporate the aircraft into its fleet cost effectively.

"Our pilots have looked at it [the 717] and like it," Kelly states. The aircraft will also allow Southwest to operate in markets too small to support its 737 fleet.

Southwest's chief says the carrier is not prepared to make a decision on adding the larger -800 to its fleet. "We hope to make a decision soon," he says. Previously Southwest indicated it would decide on adding -800s in December and has negotiated a tentative deal with its flight attendants to operate the aircraft.

Commenting on the impetus to acquire AirTran Kelly states that after a tumultuous last couple of years in 2010 Southwest is finally comfortably profitable enough to strategically think about its future by examining its technology, fleet and possible acquisitions. Today he revealed Southwest also plans to replace its reservation system.

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