Southwest Fuels Concern About Small Market Service

Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly has caused officials in some small cities to be concerned after he said the carrier would "make every effort" to continue serving small markets after it officially merges with AirTran Airways.

Kelly refused to offer any guarantees that Southwest would remain in all of AirTran's smaller markets following the completion of the carriers' $1.4 billion merger.

Shareholders approved the merger last month, however the integration of the two carriers is expected to take months and high gas prices led to questions about whether Southwest would continue to serve all of those small cities.

Southwest Airlines officials cautioned that it was too early to make any definitive statements about the routes since the merger will take months to complete. They additionally argued that part of the reason why Southwest acquired AirTran was to access many of its prior markets.

"The reason that we looked at AirTran was because of all of the markets that it serves," said Southwest spokesperson Ashley Dillon. "We want to grow we don't want to shrink after the acquisition."

Airline officials in cities like Bloomington, Ind. noted that AirTran has brought fares down considerably since launching service in the 1990s.

"We're biding our time and we're certainly making them aware of who we are," said Fran Strebing, deputy director of marketing at the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, Ill.

Southwest has said it plans to add international and Hawaii service after completing the AirTran integration and upgrading its reservations system.

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