The Ups and Downs of Airtran

I just returned from my first trip using Airtran, and thought I’d share some things about the experience. I was traveling to Boca Raton for the 4th of July weekend and booked Airtran because their non-stop service from Washington-National to West Palm Beach was especially convenient and their flight times were superior to USAirways’ for my plans.

Unfortunately just days before my trip Airtran cancelled their brand new non-stop service on this route, and I wound up connecting in Atlanta. I could have pushed the issue and gotten a refund and bought tickets on another carrier, but at the late date that would have been far more expensive and I really wasn’t in a rush anyway.

In the end I was four for four on upgrades and all were complimentary, which seems pretty good for someone who has never flown the airline before. All flights were operated by Boeing 717 aircraft, which is the current version of the MD-80/DC-9, so seats in coach are configured 2-3. Consequently overhead bins aren’t as deep on the former side as the latter.

The only real business class benefit (other than complimentary cocktails.. be sure to bring plastic in coach for your drinks, because Airtran doesn’t take cash) is the bigger seat. There aren’t any meals. There’s no entertainment system. And the flight attendants don’t keep coach passengers away from the forward lavatory.

On the positive side, Airtran permitted cell phone useage during taxi to and from the gate. When we landed after each flight there was an announcement that phones could be used as long as it didn’t require getting out of the seat to reach them.

I noticed lots of new flyers and babies, seemingly more than I’m used to even on a holiday weekend. And on all of my flights there were announcements about where to find reading lights. They seem to expect that their passengers won’t be familiar with the rituals of flying.

The biggest downside to Airtran’s service was two hour connecting times in each direction. Airtran doesn’t operate a true hub and spoke system, where planes wait for people. Instead people wait for Airtran’s planes. What’s worse, there are no airline clubs in Airtran’s C concourse in Atlanta, making the waits more difficult. At Reagan National I can use Northwest’s Club and in West Palm Delta’s. But I’d have to travel to a different concourse to make use of a club in Atlanta. Hardly worth it, but at least the vending machines sold Good Humor ice cream.

Airtran has introduced new benefits for its A+ Rewards members, and these have gotten a whole lot of notice recently. Airtran has always been willing to buy a ticket for you on another carrier for double the credits (32 instead of 16). Now they’ll buy you a ticket to Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, or Mexico for 50 credits and anywhere else in the world for 100 credits.

This does deserve plenty of acclaim. Pick your spots wisely and a flight to say Gabarone might yield a 20% return. And if you use your American Express to buy your Airtran tickets you’ll reach the required credits 50% faster.

The downsides remain that all of the credits must be accumulated in 12 months and once a ticket is purchased for you it is in coach and in most cases won’t be upgradeable.

I do like that elite members can now transfer credits to other members’ accounts. That’ll be useful.

Unfortunately, elite members and business class customers don’t have the option of designated checkin lines at West Palm Beach or Reagan National. Fortunately I checked in online, though Airtran provides no bonus for doing so.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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