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Airfare Q&A: Will Southwest Start Charging Bag Fees?

SmarterTravel's Airfare Q&A is a periodic feature of the Today in Travel blog in which our airfare reporter Patricia Magaña answers reader questions on topics related to flights and fares. Got a question for Pati? Leave a comment below.

Dear Pati,

I know Southwest purchased AirTran back in 2011. Can you tell me when their merger will be final and if it means that Southwest will take over AirTran's routes? Also, which airline's bag-fee policy will they adopt?

—Dune Bug

Dear Dune Bug,

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Though AirTran Airways became a wholly owned subsidiary of Southwest in May 2011, it wasn't until March 2012 that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted the two carriers approval to operate as a single airline. And it wasn't until that time that AirTran began to demonstrate transformative customer-facing effects.  

While AirTran has been restructuring its route map with gate closings at several of its least-trafficked airports since 2012, it will be a few more years before a fully integrated operation emerges between the two carriers. Southwest says it plans to "transition to a single ticketing system," which is a "complex process [that] will take several years to complete." AirTran's fleet will gradually receive a fresh coat of paint and transition to a single-class configuration that matches Southwest's planes.

As for their respective loyalty programs, A+ Rewards credits may be redeemed for Southwest flights; conversely, Rapid Rewards points may be applied to AirTran flights.

You may have to wait until the airlines have fully merged to feel the "LUV" when it comes to bag fees, however. Not only does AirTran still charge for checked bags—$20 and $25 for the first and second bags, respectively—those bag fees are actually going up starting February 13. The new fees will be $25 for the first checked bag and $35 for the second. Oversized baggage will also see a lofty price increase from $50 to $75. It sure looks like AirTran's passengers are subsidizing Southwest's free checked-bag program. Even assuming Southwest does continue with "bags fly free" fleetwide once AirTran begins flying under the Southwest banner, the carrier is no longer quite as fee-free as it would like you to believe—it has recently introduced fees for early boarding and missed flights and increased penalties for a third checked bag, overweight bags, and oversized bags.

As for the second part of your question: Though Southwest doesn’t officially fly international routes, its merger with AirTran has given it a quick back-door entrance into a well-established route system, including access to many Caribbean and Mexican destinations. Southwest also gets key Atlanta and Washington, D.C., routes through its merger without having to go through another approval process.

And in perhaps the clearest sign yet that the carrier intends to go global, it recently received approval to build a new international terminal at Houston's Hobby Airport.

For the record, Southwest already had a presence in Mexico by way of Volaris, which currently links a handful of southwestern U.S. airports, plus Chicago, with five Mexican destinations.

Got an airfare question for Pati? Post it in the comments area below.

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