AirTran operated nearly 700 daily flights, primarily in the eastern and midwestern United States, with its principal hub at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport where it operated nearly 200 daily departures. AirTran's fleet consisted of Boeing 717-200 aircraft, of which it was the world's largest operator, and Boeing 737-700 aircraft. It was fully integrated into Southwest Airlines on December 28, 2014.
The original AirTran Airways, a Boeing 737-200 operator with service to/from Orlando, was founded by AirTran Corporation, the holding company of Mesaba Airlines of Minneapolis, Minnesota, operating as a Northwest Airlink carrier with hubs in Minneapolis and Detroit. In 1994, AirTran Holdings purchased a start up 737 operator named Conquest Sun and renamed the airline AirTran Airways. Conquest Sun, similar to ValuJet, was an airline started by former Eastern Air Lines employees. The original AirTran Airways moved its headquarters to Orlando, Florida, and grew to 11 Boeing 737 aircraft serving 24 cities in the East and Midwest providing low-fare leisure travel to Orlando. In 1995, AirTran Airways was spun off by Mesaba and formed its own independent holding company named Airways Corporation.
On July 10, 1997, ValuJet, Inc., the holding company for ValuJet Airlines, Inc., announced plans to acquire Airways Corporation, Inc., the holding company for AirTran Airways, Inc. of Orlando, Florida. The deal was closed on November 17, 1997.
Following two serious accidents (flight 597 and flight 592), both blamed on a lax corporate culture on safety at ValuJet, on September 24, 1997, ValuJet Airlines changed its name to AirTran Airlines, by, on November 17, 1997, acquiring Airways, Inc. and renaming the holding company AirTran Holdings, Inc. In the summer of 1998, the two airlines merged onto the same FAA certificate under the AirTran name. While the hub remained in Atlanta, the headquarters of the new entity was combined in Orlando, Florida, on January 28, 1998. While ValuJet was the nominal survivor and the merged company retained ValuJet's stock price history, it decided to take a new name to distance itself from its troubled past.
In January 1999, a new management team led by Joe Leonard, a veteran of Eastern Air Lines and Robert L. Fornaro, of US Airways, took the reins at the airline. The two recruited a new senior management team including Stephen J. Kolski, Operations, Kevin P. Healy, Planning, and Loral Blinde, Human Resources. The immediate goals were to stabilize the balance sheet and prepare to refinance debt due in early 2000, fix the operations, increase and establish revenue streams and prepare for delivery and operation of the Boeing 717. AirTran was the launch customer and ultimately the largest operator of this brand new aircraft. At the same time, Leonard was determined to not only lead the turn around of the carrier, but establish a culture of trust and entrepreneurship at AirTran.