Southwest Airlines' Danie Crawford, left, and Brian Davis uncover a sign at a gate in preparation for Sunday's debut service for the carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, pictured Wednesday, Feb. 8 , 2012, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)
ATLANTA — Southwest Airlines added Atlanta to its growing national route map on Sunday, bringing its open seating and free checked bags policy to the world's busiest airport after years of eyeing the area.
The Dallas-based discount airline launched 15 daily flights from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, including routes to Austin, Texas; Baltimore; Chicago; Denver; and Houston.
Southwest officials have wanted a launching pad to Atlanta's airport for years, but the company couldn't get a foothold in the market until it bought out AirTran Airways, a rival discounter that based much of its operations in Atlanta.
AirTran will continue flying about 170 daily flights from Atlanta for now, but later this year Southwest will begin to gradually absorb AirTran jets into its own fleet.
Some travelers who valued AirTran's business class and assigned seats are frustrated with the airline's loss because both of those perks will disappear when planes convert to Southwest's all-coach setup with no seat assignments.
But Southwest also offers a much broader national network than AirTran with new options for local travelers.
Until Sunday, Atlanta was the largest metropolitan area without Southwest service. The airline wasn't ready in 1991 when the airport had to fill a vacuum left by Eastern Airlines, and it would have been difficult to compete with AirTran and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines with just a few gates in the bustling airport.
The expansion marks a shift in Southwest's strategy. Southwest has avoided major hub airports for much of its history, but it entered many of those markets as its network grew over the past 15 years. Atlanta stood out as a hole.
Chief executive Gary Kelly said when the AirTran deal was announced in late 2010 that the airline's business customers wanted an expansion to Atlanta. He said the AirTran acquisition is "very clearly a strategic move for us to fill that gap."