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End of an era: Very last AirTran Airways flight departs from Mitchell International Airport Sunday

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- The very last AirTran Airways flight departed from General Mitchell International Airport on Sunday evening, December 28th. This, after Southwest Airlines formally acquired AirTran Airways back in 2011.

AirTran Airways Flight 351 was set to depart from Mitchell International at 5:36 p.m. Sunday. It would then head to Atlanta, and finally Tampa.

The event marks the nearly complete integration of AirTran and Southwest, resulting in one airline with one customer service experience, one flight schedule, on Frequent Flier program and one brand.

Gina Kneser was flying Sunday with her husband Dan and their children -- eight-year-old Anna and three-year-old Joshua.

"We had a great time spending Christmas with my parents, sister -- my whole family lives in Milwaukee here. It was actually a surprise to us. We didn't realize this was the last AirTran flight," Kneser said.

In 2011, Southwest Airlines formally acquired AirTran Airways.

"It's a celebration of bringing two great airlines together," Southwest Airlines spokesman Dan Landson said.

Southwest found many synergies with AirTran including its focus on customer service, low fares, destinations and the type of aircraft it flies. The integration completes when Flight 1 from Atlanta lands in Tampa at nearly midnight on Sunday night. The route is a nod to the airline’s first flight in October 1993.

"This is significant because it's the end of AirTran, but the beginning of the combined Southwest. With additional consolidation across the industry, it's a unfortunate necessity," J.L. Johnson, a senior correspondent with said.

When the merger was announced back in 2010, the combined AirTran/Southwest had 67 flights departing from Milwaukee. Now, that number is down to 45 daily flights.

"You may see a reduction in service," Johnson said.

In 2010, Mitchell International Airport served 9.8 million passengers. By 2013, that number was down to about 6.5 million.

"It is kind of a sad day to see the sunset of an airline," Mitchell International Airport spokeswoman Pat Rowe said.

Rowe says the numbers are down because in 2010, Mitchell International Airport was a hub for Midwest Airlines and all of the transferring passengers were counted. She says despite industry consolidation, the airport is still serving southeastern Wisconsin well.

"It's an entirely different business model right now that is being used by the airlines," Rowe said.

As long-time employees said goodbye the airplane and the airline, Kneser reflected on her trip.

"I'd say it's an honor and privilege to be on this final flight," Kneser said.

Southwest Airlines took off in 1971. It remains the only carrier where your Bags Fly Free (first two pieces of checked luggage, size and weight limits apply), it doesn’t charge change fees for when you need to change a flight (fare difference might apply), and its legendary customer service is recognized around the world.

Southwest currently operates at 93 cities across the United States and near-international countries including Jamaica, The Bahamas, Aruba and Mexico.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Southwest Airlines.

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