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TPG contributor Jason Steele was booking tickets on Southwest last week when he came across an interesting new codeshare option on AirTran that he discusses along with how to maximize it in terms of Ultimate Rewards points and the Southwest Companion Pass.
Last Saturday morning, January 25, 2013, I was surprised to find nine daily nonstop AirTran flights between Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale bookable on Southwest.com as codeshares with either points or miles. Even more surprising was that there were no announcements or press releases surrounding this positive development, as opposed to the recent media hoopla surrounding their new $40 early boarding fee. Southwest acquired AirTran way back in 2010, but since then it’s been like watching an airline merger in slow motion as the airlines haven’t even been able to merge their operations, frequent flyer programs or anything else it seems in all that time.
Here is what we know about the codeshare so far:
- This is a limited codeshare at this time. AirTran flights are only bookable on two routes at this time: ATL-FLL, and ATL-RSW (Fort Myers, Florida). Conveniently, these routes could not be flown non-stop on Southwest metal.
- Connections will be available soon. When I reached out to Southwest to get their comment, spokesperson Katie McDonald replied, “We have begun testing connected itineraries between the Southwest and AirTran networks in a small handful of markets. Pending the results, we plan the first significant offering to customers in February when we will make more details available. We’ll continue to implement in March and expect to be fully rolled out in April.”
- Southwest baggage policies apply on AirTran metal. According to this page buried on Southwest.com, AirTran operated flights booked on Southwest.com offer the same two free bags that are offered on Southwest metal.
- AirTran seating policies apply on AirTran flights. Seat assignments can be purchased after ticketing. Otherwise, seats can be selected for free at check-in, 24 hours before departure. I have not yet had the chance to try buying up to their Business Class at check-in, but I suspect that will work.
- Purchased flights accumulate Southwest Rapid Rewards points not AirTran A+ Rewards points. The rates for earning points on revenue tickets are the same within their three fare classes: 6 points per dollar spent for Wanna Get Away, 10x for Anytime, and 12x for Business Select.
- Companion passes are valid. I was able to add a companion online just as I normally would for flights operated by Southwest.
How To Leverage This New Feature:
Until last Saturday, the only way to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points from credit cards like the Sapphire Preferred and Ink Bold and, by extension, Southwest Rapid Rewards points for flights operated by AirTran was to search for award seat availability, and convert 19,200 Rapid Rewards points to 16 AirTran A+ credits for each round trip ticket.
Unfortunately, doing so stripped these points of much of their value since these aren’t necessarily the highest-priced fares out there. Southwest Rapid Rewards points are worth 1.8 cents each for most people, and 3.6 cents each for those with Companion Pass status. In fact, these points are often worth somewhat less when you consider the promo codes Southwest frequently distributes which cannot be used for award booking.
Therefore, any flight that I could have purchased for under about $350 round trip would have required more points if I had exchanged them for AirTran credits. With a Companion Pass, that figure climbs to $750. Take into account the luggage charges on AirTran award flights, and the value of your Ultimate Rewards and Rapid Rewards points declines even further when you convert them directly to A+ credits.
But the real beauty of Southwest’s fixed-value point system when used for Southwest or AirTran flights is that awards are available for any seat offered for sale. I searched for four award seats from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale on Southwest because I knew it would have been a futile exercise to search for four low-mileage-level award seats on any Delta flight.
And of course, if you are purchasing a revenue ticket for an AirTtran flight that Southwest codeshares, you are much better off booking it on Southwest.com to enjoy their more generous luggage policy.
Avoid Being Overcharged:
With no announcements or publicity, it is not surprising that personnel at both carriers don’t seem to have gotten the memo. At different times, both Southwest and AirTran’s telephone agents indicated to one of the travelers in the party that AirTran’s luggage rules would apply to the flights, despite the written statements to the contrary on Southwest’s site. Both agents seemed confused, and the AirTran agent later clarified and confirmed that we would receive two free checked bags in accordance with Southwest’s policies. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend that travelers checking bags on AirTran flights booked through Southwest present a copy of this page to AirTran agents if they experience similar confusion at the airport.