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AirTran fleeing Yeager Airport

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Citing the challenging economic environment and sustained high-fuel prices, AirTran Airways announced Friday that it will cease operations at Charleston's Yeager Airport and four other airports in June of next year.

AirTran, a wholly owned subsidiary of Southwest Airlines, currently operates three weekly flights between Charleston and Orlando, Fla.

The Charleston-Orlando service, which began in June 2009, "was a very successful flight for AirTran," said Yeager Airport Director Rick Atkinson.

The main reason behind the decision to drop the Charleston-Orlando route, he said, has to do with a labor agreement between Southwest and its employees that takes effect next June, when Southwest's acquisition of AirTran, announced earlier this year, is complete.

"Under that agreement, one of the things Southwest cannot do is to outsource any work," Atkinson said. At Yeager, AirTran outsources its gate- and ground-handling work to CRW Services, an airport-owned subsidiary that makes use of specially trained Yeager Airport employees.

With the CRW Service option no longer possible after next June, "it doesn't make sense for them to pay full-time employees to work here a few hours a day, three days a week," Atkinson said.

"They were very complimentary about the operation here, but said it just doesn't fit what they need to do," he said. Without the use of subcontracted labor, the airline needs to operate about eight daily flights from a city to spread out labor costs enough to make it profitable, Atkinson said.

"One good thing about the situation is that they gave us a lot of notice," Atkinson said. "I think it's possible another airline could step in between now and June 2012, and meanwhile, advanced bookings on AirTran are strong."

Yeager still has one low-cost carrier -- Spirit Airlines, which operates flights between Charleston and Fort Lauderdale -- plus seasonal service to Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Other airports that will lose AirTran service next June are Miami International Airport, Dulles International Airport in the Washington, D.C. area, Central Illinois Regional Airport, and McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tenn.

The AirTran service at those airports and Yeager will end June 3.

According to AirTran's announcement Friday, "ticketed passengers, passengers holding reservations or passengers desiring to make reservations for flights to or from these airports have no need to alter their travel plans prior to June 3, 2012."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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