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Best Airlines

Get the most bang for your flying buck with these winning airlines.

Best Low-fare Airline Value:
AirTran Airways
When AirTran landed its first Business Travel Award from us in 1998, it was a small upstart airline, flying older, hand-me-down jets, and considered nothing more than a nuisance by the major carriers. Now it towers over them in terms of profitability and customer satisfaction. None of its fleet of new Boeing jets is more than five years old. And this year, AirTran will probably join the ranks of "major" carriers, or those with more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

Over the years, AirTran has followed a smart--but slow--path to success in the airline industry, winning over value-conscious business travelers and companies fed up with major airlines. That's because of its low fares and common-sense approach to air travel.

For example, fares rarely exceed $100 each way for tickets bought at least 21 days in advance, and walk-up fares rarely exceed $300 each way. It also offers A-Plus Rewards, a simple frequent-flier program that rewards members with a free one-way flight for every eighth one-way trip flown. A program for small businesses, the A2B Corporate Travel Program, provides member companies with easier access to upgrades, reduced restrictions and waived change fees.

AirTran sets itself apart from other low-fare carriers by offering two classes of service--coach and business class--something you won't find on airlines like JetBlue or Southwest. Best of all, standby upgrades to its business class cabin (identical to first-class cabins of major airlines) cost just $35 to $75.

To keep passengers entertained on its transcontinental runs, AirTran plans to install XM Satellite Radio onboard its fleet this year, offering passengers 100 channels of live news, sports, music and games from every seat back.

Recently, AirTran has broadened its mostly East Coast/Midwest presence with new east-west flights, connecting cities like Atlanta with Western cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. AirTran also offers same-day standby at no additional cost.

For more information, see www.airtran.com, or call (800) AIR-TRAN.

Best Major Airline Value:
Southwest Airlines
No other major airline has brought more value to more budget-conscious business travelers than Southwest. After 31 consecutive profitable years, this airline juggernaut now ranks as the largest carrier in the nation in terms of passengers carried.

Once the model that low-fare carriers aspired to, Southwest has become the model for the entire airline industry. If you're enjoying low airfares anywhere in the country, you can thank Southwest for bringing them to you, either directly or indirectly. Despite its name, Southwest is now a major carrier with influence reaching beyond its Sun Belt focus to 60 cities, including Northern cities such as Chicago; Long Island, New York; and Philadelphia. It's now also the biggest carrier in Florida and at Chicago-Midway airport, where it picked up the assets of bankrupt ATA.

For small businesses, Southwest offers SWABiz.com, a free tool that allows travelers to plan, book and purchase tickets on Southwest.com, while providing purchasing reports to the company. Rapid Rewards, its frequent-flier program, is the only major frequent-flier program that doesn't limit the number of seats available for award travel.

Southwest offers more than just low fares. It has one of the newest, all-Boeing fleets in the industry and leads in airline on-time performance. But don't expect a first-class section, an airport lounge or onboard meals. Southwest serves only peanuts and drinks, with snack packs only for long trips, encouraging customers to bring their own snacks. For reservations, call (800) I-FLY-SWA, or see www.southwest.com.

Chris McGinnis is Entrepreneur's "Biz Travel" columnist.

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