Southwest Airlines will begin service from Wichita Mid-Continent Airport on June 2, the carrier announced at a news conference Monday.
Southwest will operate two daily flights from Mid-Continent to Dallas Love Field and two daily flights to Chicago Midway Airport. There also will be one daily flight to Las Vegas, for a total of five daily flights from Wichita, officials announced at the news conference, held at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.
“Folks, the wait is over,” said Bob Montgomery, Southwest’s vice president for airport affairs, during the news conference, which included state and local dignitaries.
The five departure and five arrival flights will utilize 143-seat Boeing 737s to Dallas and Chicago, Southwest officials said, and a 137-seat 737 to Las Vegas. One-way rates will range between $94 and $178 to each destination. Wichita travelers to those airports will be able to catch nonstop Southwest flights to other cities. For example, Southwest operates nonstop flights from Chicago Midway to 57 other cities, including on the East and West coasts.
The addition of Southwest is a boon to the city’s economic development and tourism efforts, Mayor Carl Brewer and Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Tim Norton said following the announcement.
“As far back as 1980, when I moved here with Target, affordable, dependable air service has been a need of this community,” Norton said. “We’ve had air service, but when I flew to Denver years ago, and the cost was so prohibitive that we drove to Kansas City to fly, that’s a dynamic we knew we had to change.
“And in talking with Pizza Hut, Rent-A-Center, the companies that left here, part of the conversation was that airfares are too high here for companies that travel a lot. Fast forward to today, and a dependable, affordable carrier that changes the dynamic of our air travel, our businesses and certainly our community.”
Montgomery said Southwest may initially utilize Affordable Airfares revenue to mitigate “risk” but hopes to grow its business so the public subsidies aren’t needed. City officials said after the meeting that Southwest is “not a company that traditionally utilizes public incentives,” and it’s not clear how much Affordable Airfares money the company will need – if any – to start its Wichita operation.
State and local governments have been subsidizing AirTran’s operations out of Mid-Continent; Southwest bought Air Tran in 2011.
Gov. Sam Brownback joined Wichita officials in praising the Southwest announcement, calling it crucial to economic development and retention in the Wichita area.
“It’s a great benefit to the people of Kansas to be able to travel the country at competitive rates,” the governor said.
Brownback also committed during the news conference to recommending the extension of Affordable Airfares during the 2013 legislative session, calling its potential role helping defray Southwest’s risk entering the Wichita market appropriate.
“The program is doing what we want,” the governor said. “It’s a good program, and I’m going to propose continuing it.”
Montgomery said the fate of Affordable Airfares will have no bearing on Southwest’s future in Wichita.
“We are here with no conditions, no demands,’ he said. “We ask that y’all fly Southwest, because this is a tough business.”
For years Southwest has been regarded as a discount carrier. And while “they still try to fly at the lower end of the price spectrum,” they are not the discount carrier of a decade ago, said Dean Headley, a Wichita State University marketing professor and co-author of the annual national Airline Quality Rating.
“They’re not as discount as they used to be,” Headley said, adding that as Southwest has grown in size it’s had to change to compete with bigger airlines such as American, Delta and United.
Southwest acquired AirTran in a $3.4 billion deal. In February, the Dallas-based airline confirmed it would continue to serve Wichita as Southwest, but that AirTran operations would eventually cease.
Monday’s announcement wraps up negotiations dating back to 1991, city and county officials said. In January, county and city officials traveled to Dallas to meet with Southwest officials to seal the deal.
Montgomery said at the news conference that Southwest will end AirTran’s Wichita-to-Atlanta service on June 2, essentially handing the Wichita-to-Atlanta market to Delta, which offers five daily flights.
WSU’s Headley thinks that it will cost more to fly from Wichita to Atlanta once Delta has no competition on the route.
“In a year from now I don’t know if we’ll have five flights (daily to Atlanta) but I guarantee fares will go up,” he said.