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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

One more business story, this one from the airline industry.

Midwest Airlines has built itself a pretty nice reputation. The wide leather seats and those fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies surely don't hurt. Well, now the low-cost airline AirTran is attempting a hostile takeover of Midwest.

And as Marge Pitroff of member station WUWM reports, that has some people in Milwaukee worried. That city is the home base for Midwest Airlines.

MARGE PITROFF: Papermaking giant Kimberly Clark started Midwest Air about two decades ago to help its employees get direct flights to customers. Today, Midwest has 55 planes and offers 140 daily flights from Milwaukee. As other hubs have done for their hometowns, Midwest has created jobs, made air travel more convenient, and even helped pay for a convention center that bears its name.

But what seems to evoke the most pride in Milwaukee is the fact that Midwest is homegrown. Before 9/11 plunged the industry into economic turmoil, Midwest's perks were legendary, including fine dining on china and complementary champagne. Today, it offers wide leather seats and cookies baked on board.

So when AirTran made a bid for Midwest, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was among those coming to its defense.

Mayor TOM BARRETT (Mayor, Milwaukee, Wisconsin): It's the only airline I've ever been on where I'm in a better mood when I get off the airplane than when I get on. So hang in there, Midwest. Milwaukee is behind you.

PITROFF: One Milwaukee man has made it his personal crusade.

Mr. ART SUAREZ (Midwest Airline Supporter): This is about being out on a limb now.

PITROFF: Art Suarez is dodging cars exiting the freeway downtown to plant a half dozen signs in the median grass and to talk to drivers.

Mr. SUAREZ: Honk your horn if you love Midwest Airlines.

(Soundbite of car horn)

(Soundbite of laughter)

PITROFF: Suarez has been calling on residents to buy Midwest stock so eventually, they own the company. But with more than 20 million Midwest shares, that's a lofty and improbable goal. AirTran has been offering more for those shares ever since stockholders rejected its initial offering. This week, the carrier also upped the public ante by outlining its plans to create hundreds of new jobs in Milwaukee and add dozens of flights if the merger happens.

AirTran spokesman Tad Hutcheson says his airline wants a footing in the Midwest, and Milwaukee is very close to the Chicago market.

Mr. TAD HUTCHESON (Spokesman, AirTran): You know, we want to take the key things of Midwest - such as the friendly service and the cookies and some of the things that they do very, very well - and translate that onto AirTran.

PITROFF: Behind the scenes, AirTran has gone to court, seeking a list of Midwest stockholders in an effort to appeal to them directly. It's also trying to win seats on the Midwest board. That board has been inundating shareholders with glowing reports about Midwest's recent profits and its expanding service. Spokeswoman Carol Skornicka says her airline offers more than just competitive fares.

Ms. CAROL SKORNICKA (Spokeswoman, Midwest Airlines): Well, we consider ourselves to be a provider of service rather than a carrier of people in an aluminum tube.

PITROFF: Michael Boyd is president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm. He argues the merger would make economic sense, even for those loyal to Midwest.

Mr. MICHAEL BOYD (President, The Boyd Group): They're an excellent airline, very well-managed, but if people in Milwaukee want to see more air service, frankly, this deal will bring it to them.

PITROFF: Despite what the public thinks, stockholders will make the decision. They have until March 8th to decide whether there's more value in AirTran's offer or in allowing Milwaukee's hometown airline to continue flying on its own. For NPR News, I'm Marge Pitroff in Milwaukee.

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