For years, the only way for Maine travelers to take advantage of Southwest Airlines’ prices and routes has been to make the trek to Manchester, N.H.

Now, the king of low-cost carriers is buying AirTran Airways, which flies out of the Portland International Jetport and will take over AirTran’s routes in time, adding a network of new destinations.

“We’re ecstatic over this acquisition,” said Paul Bradbury, the jetport’s director. “We’ve wanted Southwest in the Portland mix for as long as I can remember.”

The jetport has landed other low-cost carriers, like JetBlue, as well as major legacy airlines, but Southwest is a well-known brand that has a devoted following, he said.

“It’s certainly a hole in our offerings if we’re missing the largest domestic airline,” he said. “This is incredible news.”

Southwest agreed to buy AirTran for $1.4 billion. Southwest will gain new markets in the Northeast and Atlanta, the Caribbean and Mexico, adding a total of 37 cities. Changes won’t be immediate. The takeover will be completed in 2012.

Portland’s tie to Southwest’s network is expected to create easy access to new destinations. That’s good news for travelers, and contributes to a healthy business climate, said Pamela Hurley-Moser, owner of Hurley Travel Experts in Portland.

“We need to have good schedules at the jetport to attract more businesses to Maine,” she said. “I love Southwest. I think it’s a great airline that has been proving itself for many decades.”

Travelers who are familiar with Southwest said Monday that they will welcome its appearance at the jetport next year.

“I’m so excited to hear that,” said Karen Eckel of Sacramento, Calif., who was visiting her daughter at the University of Maine. “I usually fly on Southwest on the West Coast, but coming here, I would have to fly into Manchester or Boston.”

Eckel said she also likes the fact that Southwest doesn’t charge for checked baggage.

“They have amazing prices to Florida, where I grew up,” said Sarah Middleton, who now lives in Nashville but visits Maine often. “They fly to fun spots like New Orleans.”

Southwest’s ability to attract customers from other markets – called the “Southwest Effect” – has had an impact in Portland.

About 1.8 million passengers per year pass through Portland’s airport. Bradbury estimates that another 400,000 bypass the jetport for lower fares or more direct flights from Manchester or Boston’s Logan International Airport – both of which are served by Southwest.

“I think the introduction of Southwest here will basically eliminate the Logan leakage for all but certain international and direct links for certain of our passengers,” Bradbury said.

Observers doubt that Southwest’s presence will drive down fares dramatically, as it has in some markets, but it could help to keep fares from rising. And certain routes may become more affordable.

Bradbury noted that Southwest serves Midway Airport in Chicago, which could increase competition in that market, which now is served mainly by United Airlines.

“You always want at least two carriers getting your passengers into every market,” Bradbury said.

Bradbury said there is little chance that Southwest will cut back on AirTran’s service. AirTran has a five-year lease at the jetport, through 2015, and its routes serving Portland are profitable, Bradbury said.

AirTran represents about 13 percent of the traffic at the jetport, and its business has been growing, he said.

Many Portland flights now offered by AirTran probably will still connect in Baltimore – a hub for Southwest – once the takeover occurs, he said.

The changeover won’t happen until late next year, so people who have already booked flights won’t be affected.

Southwest’s takeover is expected to happen around the time when the Jetport’s $75 million terminal expansion will be completed, Bradbury said.

“We’ll need that additional security screening capacity once we have Southwest,” Bradbury said. “Could we have planned it better? I’m thinking no.”

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: dhench@pressherald.com