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Humor is flying high at AirTran

AirTran Holdings, the low-fare airline that flies mostly in the eastern United States, is jabbing at a larger competitor with an advertisement that makes fun of Southwest Airlines Co.'s unassigned seats and boarding process.

AirTran released an ad Friday through its employee Web site that shows passengers in cow costumes being herded for a flight through a gate with an obscured Southwest logo, while an AirTran passenger sips a cocktail in business class. Southwest is the only major U.S. carrier that doesn't assign seats, so passengers choose where to sit as they board in groups.

The AirTran ad responds to a Southwest spot in which baggage handlers with letters spelling "Bags Fly Free" on their bare chests flash passengers sitting on a plane with engines painted AirTran blue. Southwest is the only major carrier that lets passengers check two bags for free; AirTran charges $15 for the first checked item and $25 for the second.

"Yee-haw! We're about to board this airplane here. It's every steer for himself," a gate agent with a cowboy hat, standing in front of the Southwest logo, says to the confused passengers in cow outfits with twangy banjo music playing in the background. "Giddyap on in there. You are udderly slow."

The Southwest chest-paint ad airs on national television in major markets including Atlanta, AirTran's biggest hub, even though Dallas-based Southwest doesn't fly to the city.

AirTran made the cow ad for its employees, who kept asking whether the company was going to respond to the Southwest spot, he said. AirTran also put the ad on Google Inc.'s YouTube video-sharing service but doesn't plan to run it on TV.

"We hope our friends at Southwest see it in the lighthearted spirit it was intended," said Christopher White, a spokesman for AirTran.

Whitney Eichinger, a Southwest spokeswoman, replied that "competition is fierce in our industry. Having a little fun with the others' brand every once in a while is, at the very least, entertaining."

AirTran spent $38.1 million on marketing and advertising last year, while Southwest spent more than five times that amount at $204 million, according to the most recent annual reports for both carriers.

Southwest boards passengers in groups using numbered columns at airport gates, and passengers don't know which seat they'll have until they walk onto the plane. The carrier has a portion of its Web Site called "Southwest Airlines Boarding School" to educate travelers on how it works.

AirTran charges $6 each way to get an assigned seat when a ticket is purchased, or passengers can choose their seat for free 24 hours before the flight. Southwest last year added an "EarlyBird" check-in option for $10 each way so passengers can board first, giving them the best selection of seats.

Most major carriers such as Delta Air Lines Inc. give passengers assigned seats for free when they book a flight, and some charge passengers extra for preferred seats such as exit row seats with more leg room.

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