Buh-Bye, AirTran

December 28, 2014 is the end of the line for AirTran Airways. The company only operated for about 20 years, though that’s actually not too bad compared to the many other airlines which came and went during the same time. AirTran’s brand is disappearing, as is a good chunk of its fleet. But many of the international routes will live on, now operated by Southwest Airlines which bought AirTran back in 2010. The merger integration has been slow and deliberate. Or just slow, depending on who you ask. Either way, the brand will not fly in 2015.

Many have their favorite memories of AirTran in one form or another. Mine is, I suspect, rather different than most others, though also the same in many ways. After all, it really is about what made me smile one random day more than 15 years ago as I waited for a flight. Hopefully many others have a similar type of happy memory of AirTran.

Picture it: Orlando, January 1998. A young man waits in line to check in for his flight to Syracuse, NY and a return to the Spring semester of College. Spring is a generous term, of course, as there were at least 3 more months of cold and snow ahead, and the Florida kid wasn’t all that keen on any of it, but the time had come to return to upstate New York. And so he stands in line at the AirTran check-in counter waiting to drop his bags and collect a boarding pass. And who should come up behind him in line but the woman who sat next to him on the flight down to Florida just a couple weeks ago. The woman who wouldn’t stop talking despite him reading a book and wearing headphones (connected to a Discman!). The woman who absolutely said she was flying back north on a different date. Yeah, this was going to be a long flight.

Picture it: Orlando, 1998
Picture it: Orlando, 1998

It gets even better after they get through security and over to the gate area in the Orlando Airport: the plane is broken. They had boarded the plane and then were taken off while the company figured out what would be required to fix it and get them to New York that night. Not a lot of details are forthcoming but it is going to take long enough to fix such that snack vouchers are promptly produced by the gate agents and distributed to the crowd of passengers. Only $7 or so per person but a few enterprising members of the group managed to convince one of the bars in the terminal that they should accept the vouchers despite that generally being a no-no. And even a few of the under-age passengers in the group may have managed a drink or two while waiting for the plane to be fixed. All the better to steel oneself for the impending flight with the chatty grandmother.

Eventually they are put back on the plane and, well, it turns out that drinking in the terminal bar was a very bad idea for at least one of the passengers. As the boarding process was wrapping up the lead flight attendant asked everyone to be seated so we could depart. One of the men – rather drunk, it turns out – noted that it wasn’t his fault the flight was delayed and that the FA should get back to work. The FA reminded the passenger that they were going to still have to turn around at Syracuse and fly back to Florida that same night, assuring the passengers that “we really are no happier about this delay than you are.” At which point the drunk guy let out a brief but homophobic, expletive-laden rant. Oops.

I’m pretty sure the guy knew he screwed up right away. I know that the FA walked up to the front of the plane, got the attention of the captain and stepped out of the boarding door. The conversation there was brief. A phone call was made and a few minutes later the Orlando Police Department showed up to escort the drunk guy off the plane. He went quietly and we departed only about 4 hours later than planned.

Halfway through the flight the drinks cart was making its way up the aisle and I chatted with the flight attendant a bit to get some more details on the incident. At the end of the discussion I asked him what his name was so I could include it in a letter to HQ commending his behavior. He said he wasn’t supposed to share it and went back to work, though he also offered up another drink on the house. About 30 minutes later, shortly before landing, he stopped back by a slipped me a napkin with his name and number on it. I’m pretty sure he was hoping for more than just a letter to HQ.

And thus began my habit of flirting just a bit with the flight attendants, regardless of gender, age or orientation. Because it is fun to be friendly, and the free drinks don’t hurt either.

One of my favorite special liveries ever. Mostly because I love Little Debbie snacks.

I flew AirTran one other time, in 2009 just to have the experience and to save a few bucks coming home from a mileage run. It was nothing particularly special, though it did mean an opportunity to fly on the 717. Now those planes are mostly operating with the Delta Widget on the tail. And the AirTran brand is done, rolled in to Southwest’s operations once and for all. It was a branding used to obfuscate a bit of history; that’s rarely what a company wants to be known for. And to me it won’t be. I choose to remember the ridiculous scene at the Orlando airport and the entertainment of the flight back to Syracuse that night. It is much, much more enjoyable to me than the alternatives.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for the reflections and the laughs. While I have never flown Southwest and don’t expect to in the near future, I did fly AirTran once. In 2003 i needed to attend a meeting in Williamsburg, VA. A friend told me that you could take AirTran from LGA to Norfolk/ Newport News direct and upgrade to First Class for $35 when you check-in. I thought that was rather strange so when I did check-in and asked for any upgrade availability, sure enough I was told that for $35 I could do so. I met my friend at the gate and boarded a new plane seating 20 in First Class and we were the only two people there. Coach was sold out but no one else would spend $35 for a first class seat with complimentary drinks and snacks. We had a great time for the price, and there was just something so very “down to earth” about the flight attendants.

    It is sad to think that smaller airlines like AirTran are all but gone now.

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