When AirTran Airways — the last major low-cost carrier to serve Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport — flew the coop in the fall of 2008, it left its reservations call center in the old airport terminal building intact. At the time, AirTran officials said they had no plans to close the regional center, which had a workforce of more than 300.
But that was before May of 2011, when AirTran was acquired by Southwest Airlines.
Late last year, Southwest announced it would open an AirTran reservations center in Atlanta, eventually transitioning it to handle Southwest calls as well.
On Wednesday, airport executive director Greg Kelly told his board Southwest had closed the Savannah call center on July 31 and asked they approve a negotiated early termination of the call center lease.
The decision to fold AirTran call centers in Savannah and Carrollton into the new service center in Atlanta was a natural step toward the integration of Southwest and AirTran, according to Southwest spokeswoman Michelle Agnew, who added that employees had been notified of the closing late last year and were given several options.
“Of the 153 people at our Savannah location, 86 opted for a severance package with 35 of those retiring, while 67 chose to relocate to our Atlanta center,” she said.
Also at Wednesday’s meeting, the airport board approved an amended air service development plan designed to give Savannah an edge in recruiting new airlines and/or new flight destinations to the city.
“We first adopted an air service development incentive plan in 1997, offering $50,000 in marketing assistance for any new or additional flights into Savannah,” said Lori Lynah, director of marketing for the airport.
That plan, Lynah said, was one of the first of its kind offered by a small or regional airport and it served its purpose well.
“The following year, we secured air service from Continental Airlines, and then United Airlines the year after that.”
Other airports soon followed Savannah’s example and, in 2010, the program was updated “when it was determined that our package was lagging behind what similar sized airports offered as incentives,” Lynah said.
“We added the option to cover ground handling at cost, which was useful in securing service from Allegiant Airways.”
The trend in incentive packages continues to evolve, Lynah said, making additional adjustments necessary to remain competitive with other airports.
The following changes/additions to the Air Service Incentive Program were approved:
• Marketing assistance for two year instead of one for a new entrant carrier offering service to a new location not currently being served.
• An option to offer incentives for seasonal service from an incumbent or new-to-the-market carrier that offers service to an international destination.
• The addition of ground handling at no cost for two years to a new entrant carrier that offers service to locations not currently being served by an incumbent carrier at Savannah’s airport.
“These tweaks are important to our ongoing quest for additional air service. Savannah is such a great destination, we want to make sure airlines know what we have to offer,” Lynah said, adding that the new incentives are consistent with FAA guidelines for airports.