With Southwest’s pending acquisition of AirTran approved by shareholders, the bigger hurdle will be making it work. More than any of the recent airline mergers, simply repainting the planes is only a small step in successfully integrating the two organizations.
Much is at stake for Southwest in this deal, especially its brand. Southwest has a powerful culture and has grown organically to become the largest domestic carrier. Known for its fun-loving character and charm, it has outperformed every airline in terms of profitability and overall market momentum. Having traveled AirTran a few times, I think it is fair to say that there is a wide gap between the cultures of the two companies. In my experience, a trip on AirTran is like a day without sunshine – painfully long and utterly forgettable. In contrast, the Southwest experience is a fun-filled, free-wheeling delight. Bridging these gaps will be a test of leadership, but if successful, Southwest will prove once again that the real power in brand performance is shared values, strong culture and consistent delivery. If not, I worry that Southwest will have hurt its most valued assets: its iconic brand and its “LUV.” To get a sense of the challenge, just take a look at each company's website: