CHAMPAIGN – Southwest Airlines' proposed acquisition of AirTran could bring Southwest service to Bloomington's Central Illinois Regional Airport.
But some folks who keep tabs on airlines say it's not a given Southwest will choose to keep flying to Bloomington.
At Bloomington, AirTran has two or three flights a day, depending on the day, to Atlanta, and one flight on Saturdays to Orlando, Fla.
It's scheduled to add service to Fort Myers, Fla., next March.
If Southwest acquires AirTran, Bloomington-Normal would be one of the smallest destinations it serves, said Bill Giannetti, president of Flightstar Corp., which provides aviation maintenance and charter services at Willard Airport in Savoy.
"I could see a scenario where they either have to expand in Bloomington or eliminate Bloomington," Giannetti said.
AirTran uses both Boeing 717s and 737s in its fleet, while Southwest uses only 737s, Giannetti said.
AirTran has been phasing out the 717s, and Southwest's exclusive use of 737s has brought it economic advantages since pilots have to train for only one craft, he said.
Giannetti confessed he has "no idea" what effect the merger will have on the Bloomington airport – and by extension, on Willard Airport, which competes with Bloomington for local air traffic.
"It could be good, bad or neutral," he said. "Something's going to happen there. Who knows what it's going to be?"
Giannetti said he supposes many passengers who fly AirTran might welcome Southwest's acquisition, since it's the larger and stronger airline.
But AirTran pilots on the low end of that airline's seniority list might view the takeover with trepidation, he said.
Tom Bruno, a Champaign City Council member with a strong interest in airline service, said he doesn't know what merger would mean for Willard.
"My gut tells me it's probably bad news, but it could be good news. Maybe they will relabel AirTran (as Southwest) and pull out of Bloomington-Normal," he said.
Bruno said he "gave up on analyzing the airline industry" after Delta Air Lines announced this summer it was expanding Delta Connection service at Willard, with more flights and larger planes – and weeks later, eliminated service altogether.
"Their machinations leave me scratching my head," he said.
Lisa Hettinger, co-owner of L&L Travel in Champaign, said many of her clients are fans of AirTran, but many also like to fly Southwest.
"People love Southwest," Hettinger said. "Southwest is obviously doing something right. People want to fly them. They have really good air fares and the least lost luggage."
Judging from her local clients, Hettinger said Bloomington is the most popular place to fly from, followed by Indianapolis, Willard Airport and Chicago. She said the Bloomington airport generally has lower air fares than Willard does and also offers free parking.
Bruce Walden, whose responsibilities at the University of Illinois include Willard Airport, said he didn't know whether the merger would have a positive or negative effect on the Bloomington airport.
"I assume it would be positive," he said.
But that depends on whether Southwest buys AirTran to expand service to smaller towns – or to eliminate a competitor, he said.
In this area, cities served by both Southwest and AirTran include Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis. AirTran also flies to Bloomington-Normal and the Quad Cities.