Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY
Southwest Airlines has finally begun to "connect" its flights with those of subsidiary AirTran.
That comes more than 20 months after Southwest closed on its deal to acquire its one-time rival, offering customers one of the most-tangible changes yet in a merger that has progressed at a plodding pace.
With the linking of the two carriers' flight options, customers will now be able to book single-ticket connecting itineraries that include flights on both Southwest and AirTran.
For example, a passenger flying from Akron-Canton will soon be able to buy a single ticket to Salt Lake City that includes an AirTran flight to Denver with a connection on Southwest to Salt Lake City.
Such itineraries previously had not been possible on Southwest and AirTran, even though the airlines' merger closed in the spring of 2011.
Southwest says it began testing linking itineraries with AirTran in a five-city "initial phase" that began Jan. 26. Southwest dubbed that test - which focused Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Louisville and Norfolk - a success, saying it's now ready for a broad expansion of the effort.
Southwest will roll out the next phase on Feb. 25, when it and AirTran will connect their flights options in 39 more cities. Southwest adds its "on pace" to fully connect the airlines' combined 97 destinations, including international, by the end of April.
"Connecting the networks is a priority in 2013 and a major milestone as we work to combine our two Companies," Bob Jordan, Chief Commercial Officer at Southwest Airlines and President of AirTran, says in a statement. "With a connected network, we can offer Customers more itineraries, more destinations, more low fares, and a taste of what's to come once the integration is complete."
It also will allow Southwest to begin reaping some of the benefits it envisioned when it engineered its merger with AirTran.
Eventually, AirTran's brand will disappear as Southwest assimilates its operations into its own - but that's not expected to be complete until 2015.
Prior to January's tentative effort to link flights, Southwest had been limited in its ability to capitalize on the merger by funneling AirTran passengers - and destinations - into its own network.
Even with the linked flights, one area will remain murky for the airlines' customers: fees.
Most notably, Southwest allows customers two checked bags at no change. AirTran charges a fee.
So, how will the carriers sort that out for their linked flights?
Southwest says customers will get Southwest's checked-baggage allowance on any itinerary that involves a Southwest flight. For other fees, however, Southwest says it will enforce the fee policy of the airline through which the ticket is booked.