In 1994, the holding company for Mesaba Airlines, AirTran Corporation, purchased a start-up carrier called Conquest Sun. Conquest Sun was formed from former Eastern employees and operated with Boeing 737-200 aircraft. After the purchase, the airline was renamed to AirTran Airways, and their headquarters was moved from Minnesota to Orlando. In the first year, the airline grew to 11 aircraft and focused on connecting the Midwest and the East Coast to Florida.
In 1995, AirTran Corporation decided to spin off AirTran Airways into its own corporation called Airways Corporation. In July 1997, Valujet Inc. the owner of troubled ValuJet Airlines announced they would be merging with Airways Corp. to form AirTran Airways Inc. The two carriers would be merged onto a single operating certificate, while the main hub would stay in Atlanta, headquarters would move to Orlando. The new airline would retain the AirTran name, although Valujet was the surviving airline. This is due to the bad publicity surrounding Valujet after the loss of flight 592.
At the turn of the century, a new management team was brought in to focus on refinancing the debt, stabilize the finances of the airline, and establish the Boeing 717 in the fleet. AirTran was the launch customer for the 717. At the time, the airline’s fleet consisted of DC-9s left over from Valujet and Boeing 737-200s from the pre-merger AirTran. The first 717s arrived in October 1999 and the aging DC-9s were beginning to be phased out.
In 2002, AirTran partnered with regional airline Air Wisconsin to offer regional jet service under the name AirTran JetConnect. The carrier flew CRJ-200s primarily in the southeast United States, with some routes to smaller cities in the Midwest. The partnership would only last for two years and was closed in 2004.
In 2003, the airline placed an order for 100 Boeing 737 Next Generation aircraft. During the following year, the last DC-9 left the fleet while the first 737 joined the fleet. The airline also took one of the last Boeing 717 aircraft from Boeing in 2006, with Midwest Airlines taking the other. In 2009, AirTran became the first airline in the United States to offer GoGo inflight wifi onboard every aircraft.
Several of AirTran’s aircraft featured special liveries for sports teams and companies. This included Lil’ Debbies, Orange County CVB, the Indianapolis Colts, the Orlando Magic, among others. The deals were with teams and companies in places such as Orlando, Atlanta, and Milwaukee
The mid-2000s AirTran went through a series of failed acquisitions. Initially, the airline attempted to buy out ATA’s gates at Chicago Midway but was outbid by Southwest Airlines. In 2006, AirTran attempted to purchase Midwest Airlines, however, they were again outbid, this time by the TPG Group.
In 2010, Southwest Airlines announced they had purchased AirTran Airways for $1.4 billion. The merger would mainly benefit Southwest as they would be able to serve Atlanta now as well as increase their presence in Milwaukee. It would also see Southwest enter the international market for the first time. The Boeing 737 aircraft were integrated into the fleet while the fleet of Boeing 717s were leased out to Delta. The deal was closed on May 2, 2011 and the carriers began using a single certificate the next year. The final AirTran flight, from Atlanta to Tampa operated on Nov. 30, 2014 and used the “Critter” callsign as a homage to Valujet.