Budget worries and all, Sedgwick County commissioners were right to vote Wednesday to stay the course on what is informally called “Fair Fares.” This is no time to steer away from the proven subsidy program, not with Southwest Airlines having committed to continue serving Wichita Mid-Continent Airport after its merger with AirTran Airways is final.
After a robust discussion about the propriety and future of the subsidies, the commission voted 4-1 to approve agreements with the city of Wichita and AirTran that will keep the low-fare carrier flying between Wichita and Atlanta through June 2013.
Its welcome vote came two days after the Regional Economic Area Partnership, which administers the 6-year-old Kansas Affordable Airfares Program, formalized $4.75 million in state funding for Mid-Continent service, as well as $250,000 to subsidize American Eagle service at Garden City Regional Airport. For Mid-Continent, the city and Sedgwick County each will contribute $875,000 toward the revenue guarantees. In the past, Frontier Airlines also has participated, helping lower fares to points west.
Meanwhile, criticism continues to be heard from other parts of the state – not coincidentally those served by the ample, affordable flights of Missouri’s Kansas City International Airport.
Kansas City TV station KSHB, an NBC affiliate, aired an investigative story Monday citing a critical 2011 state audit and claiming the state “is paying for empty seats on airplanes from Kansas’ largest airport with little oversight.” The story claimed that “AirTran’s flights were relatively empty compared to other airlines flying in and out of Wichita,” citing federal data showing Delta and American Eagle flights at 74 percent capacity during the first three months of 2012 while AirTran’s were at 44 percent capacity.
What the TV report didn’t mention was that:
• Gov. Sam Brownback endorses continued state support for the airfares program, understanding its value to business and economic development across a broad swath of Kansas.
• The presence of AirTran and Frontier in the market leverages lower fares across their routes, boosting ridership on other carriers and therefore saving money even for fliers who don’t use the low-fare airlines.
• The state audit also found that the return on the state’s investment had been a strong $2.32-to-$1 and that “overall, the program appears to have had the desired effect” because “fares have decreased while the number of passengers and the number of available flights have increased” since local subsidies started in 2002.
• The program was part of what won Southwest’s commitment to serve Wichita as it takes over AirTran.
Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Tim Norton acknowledged Wednesday that “Fair Fares” was meant to be temporary. But, he said, “I’m going to hang in there until we know that Southwest is on the ground – planes with their colors are flying out of here – and we’ve got that low-cost, market-based company wedged into our community. And I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”
We’re not. But the continuing partnership of the state, city and county is essential to getting there.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman