Is Southwest’s Acquisition of AirTran Helping its Online Presence Take Off?

Airplane Taking Off

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With generally slim profit margins, airlines must do whatever possible to remain competitive.  Southwest decided that meant buying AirTran, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Southwest.  The acquisition agreement was signed May 2, 2011 with the mission of improving the business, in part through better economies of scale.  Since then, routes have been consolidated and integration of frequent flyer programs is under way.  But the websites remain separate.

Compete assessed how the acquisition has influenced traffic using basic data available through Compete PRO, specifically unique visitor (UV) volume to over the past two years.  UV calculations leverage Compete’s patented normalization process and avoid double-counting of people that visited a site more than once in a given month, thereby avoiding false positives.  Beneficial digital results could include sustained gains in traffic, starting at the time of the merger, with no loss in traffic quality.

UVs to

Clearly, Southwest’s unique visitor volume bumped up at the time of merger.  UVs grew from a monthly average of 9.3mm in Q1’11 (pre-merger) to 10.9 million per month in Q1’12, up 17% YoY.  The timing of the gain and that it has generally been sustained is a positive for  Recall that is still active, so the lift in Southwest traffic is not simply former visitors redirected to

The next test is traffic quality: How engaged are visitors?  Engagement was assessed using attention (attention defined as the time we spent on a given site taken as a percentage of the collective time we spend online).

Attention to

Attention increased coincident with the merger, suggesting site visitors are more engaged.  And, similar to unique visitors, the attention lift has also generally been sustained.   So far, gains in both visitor volume and attention look like positives.  For a deeper dive on more current trends, Compete PRO evaluated daily reach and attention over the past 30 days (reach being defined as how many people visit a website as a percentage of all U.S. Internet users online).

Attention vs. Daily Reach at

Results show daily reach and attention pikes roughly every seven days.  This may represent the result of promotions, sales or email campaigns, in particular Southwest’s “Tick Tock Tuesday” deals.  Unfortunately, the magnitude of the spikes has declined in the period.

In summary, UVs to is up since the merger, which is a positive.  Attention is up, which could be a positive.  Daily reach and attention spikes are down, which could be a negative but may be unrelated to the merger.  What’s next?

  • Evaluate whether gains in Southwest UVs represent new customers (i.e., consumers that have not visited before).  Evaluate again if/when is eventually shut down (in favor of
  • Investigate the extent to which higher attention means higher quality (e.g., is driving a higher booking rate).  If not, the lift in attention could simply reflect former AirTran customers’ lack of familiarity with the Southwest site.
  • Compare promotional ad spend, timing and share of voice with spikes in daily reach and attention, including related to Tick Tock Tuesday.  The downward trend in reach/attention suggests either weaker share of voice or reduced promotion effectiveness.
  • Assess how your company stacks up on these same metrics using


Check out our free report on The Online Impact of an Airline Merger to find out more about what happens to online traffic when brands combine online.

About Melissa Smith:
Melissa comes to Compete to work in the Sales department as a Business Development Intern. Melissa is currently a student within the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst studying Marketing. Find Melissa on Twitter @melissas6492 or connect with her on LinkedIn.