PORTLAND – Mainers won’t need to drive to Manchester, N.H., or Boston much longer to catch a ride on Southwest Airlines.
On Friday, the nation’s largest domestic airline announced that Portland International Jetport had made the list of AirTran Airways locations that would continue to be served as Southwest merges the two airlines. The news could mean expanded routes, more competitive fares and a busier Portland jetport.
The announcement also ended months of anxiety for jetport officials after Southwest started shutting down AirTran service in other cities. Although the impending sale of AirTran to Southwest raised hopes at the jetport when it was announced in 2010, Southwest’s plans for Portland were far from certain until Friday.
“We were not exactly sure because there had been a slew of AirTran cities that closed,” said Paul Bradbury, jetport director.
The sale of AirTran, which served 69 cities, was completed in May. Since then, Southwest has announced it will stop service at 15 cities served by AirTran.
Southwest and AirTran now operate separately, but starting this year, Southwest plans to merge the 22 AirTran locations into Southwest, which will take several years.
It is not clear whether Southwest plans to add new routes to and from Portland. Olga Romero, Southwest spokeswoman, said any changes will not be decided for several months. But she did say the airline will work to maximize its routes.
Portland International Jetport made the list along with 21 other cities because it is a strong market, said Romero.
“Portland is very important for Southwest Airlines,” she said.
AirTran accounts for about 13 percent of the traffic at the jetport, and its flights to and from Baltimore are particularly popular.
Bradbury said the number of passengers at the jetport, now about 1.8 million a year, is bound to increase. He said Southwest fliers are loyal to the airline and were willing to bypass Portland and make the trip to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport and Logan International Airport in Boston to use the service. But now Southwest will be flying out of Portland, where parking fees are considerably less: $12 a day in the garage, compared with $18 at Manchester and $24 in Boston.
Bradbury was not certain how the merger will affect pricing, but he said Portland already offers low fares. He said the jetport recently made CheapTickets.com’s top 20 list.
“Better than Manchester and Logan,” he said.
Tod Yankee of Freeport, an airport management consultant who also serves on the Portland jetport’s Building Committee, hasn’t flown very much in a couple of years, but does expect to fly a lot in 2012.
He was glad to hear that Southwest Airlines would be flying out of Portland. He said Southwest strives to keep its fares low, something that other air carriers will have to consider in what Yankee calls a very competitive market.
“Southwest is a low-cost carrier and they’ve got a reputation for providing good service. I think their presence will also provide a competitive incentive for other carriers to keep their costs low,” he said.
Yankee has flown out of the Boston, Manchester and Portland airports, but given a choice, he prefers Portland because of its more manageable size, atmosphere and proximity to his home.
He thinks more Mainers will choose to fly out of Portland now that Southwest has decided to operate there.
Bradbury said the terminal expansion now under way should leave the jetport with plenty of room for more passengers because it was designed with a passenger increase in mind.
“This is a good thing,” Bradbury said.
He said the jetport is working to expand service in other ways, including reinstating direct service to Florida, additional service to Chicago and other types of service such as charter and leisure.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this story.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: