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Wichita Mid-Continent Airport’s passengers fewer as flights shift

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, at 11:30 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, August 23, 2013, at 4:55 p.m.

Wichita Mid-Continent Airport traffic

YearTotal Passengers*Daily flights**
20121,509,20633
20111,536,35435
20101,549,39538
20091,505,60741
20081,619,07543
20071,596,22950
20061,460,33147
20051,486,59044
20041,498,74945
20031,431,61053

*Includes inbound and outbound passengers

**Excludes weekends

Source: Wichita Airport Authority

The number of passengers flying in and out of Wichita Mid-Continent Airport fell 2 percent last year as airlines again reduced capacity.

That’s in line with other airports in the region: Traffic at Kansas City International Airport fell 4 percent in 2012, and Tulsa International saw a 2 percent decline; An exception was seen at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, where passenger numbers grew 4 percent.

In Wichita, Frontier Airlines halted service to Denver in November, a loss of about 200 seats each way.

And Allegiant Air stopped seasonal service to Los Angeles in August 2011.

Over the past 10 years, the number of daily flights from Wichita has declined significantly, although passenger traffic has risen slightly.

In December, Wichita air carriers offered 33 daily departures. That number is down from 53 daily flights in 2003.

At the same time, 1.51 million passengers flew in and out of the airport, slightly down from 1.54 million in 2011.

In 2003, the airport said it served 1.41 million passengers.

The numbers mean more people packed on to fewer planes, a trend that is likely to continue as airlines merge and eliminate flights that aren’t profitable.

“The airline industry has really consolidated and constricted,” said Valerie Wise, Wichita Airport Authority air service and business development manager. “They’re combating or dealing with the higher costs – not just in fuel, but in the higher labor costs and everything going up. That’s why you see the mergers and the reduction in capacity so they can charge a higher fare.”

When AirTran Airways entered the Wichita market in 2002, fares dropped. AirTran’s entry was followed by Allegiant and Frontier Airlines.

“We had more flights and more destinations,” Wise said.

Passenger traffic in Wichita peaked in 2008 at 1.62 million.

“Then fuel prices soared; that’s when the airlines started to panic, where we saw bankruptcies and mergers and pulling back service,” Wise said.

One place in which airlines cut substantially were markets served by 50-seat (or fewer) regional jets.

Since 2008, Wichita has lost service to Detroit, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Phoenix and Memphis – all markets served by 50-seat or fewer regional jets.

And airline profits have decreased.

U.S. carriers made a net profit of 77 cent per enplaned passenger in 2011. That fell to 50 cents per enplaned passenger last year, according to Airlines for America, an airline industry trade group.

Mergers also impacted service.

When Delta Air Lines merged with Northwest Airlines in 2009, Delta began cutting service to hubs in Memphis and Cincinnati. Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways announced their merger in 2010; United Airlines merged with Continental in 2010; and American Airlines and US Airways announced last week they too will merge

“We have fewer airlines,” Wise said. “When airlines merge, you usually see them cutting back service to one of the hubs.”

Wichita has seen some new flights added amid those that were stopped.

Allegiant began service to Phoenix-Mesa after US Airways Express pulled out.

United is starting service to Los Angeles, serving the market with 66-seat Canadair aircraft.

And Southwest Airlines’ entry to Wichita on June 2 will add flights and service.

AirTran’s three daily flights to Atlanta will cease as Southwest begins two daily flights to Chicago and Dallas and one daily flight to Las Vegas from Wichita.

That’s a net gain of 258 seats per day.

Dean Headley, Wichita State University associate professor of marketing who co-authors an annual Airline Quality Rating report, said Wichita shouldn’t worry too much about the drop in passenger volume or the decline in flights.

While we’re no longer in a recession, “is business back? Were we back in a good economy?” Headley asks. “Well, no.”

The good news is that existing flights are full, he said.

For passengers?

“The consumers take it in the shorts,” Headley said. The convenience of more frequent flights disappeared, so airlines could make more money.

“The airlines will almost always consider their needs more than the consumers,” he said.

And Wichita is not a hub or destination market, “although we’d like to think we are,” Headley said.

Southwest will be good for the airport, he said.

“Overall, I think Southwest obviously has a positive impact on the market when they come in,” Headley said.

It’s important that Wichita supports the service, he said.

If it doesn’t get the traffic, “Southwest will be gone before you know what hit us,” Headley said.

Without Southwest, Wichita has no other options for a low-cost carrier to woo to come in and make Wichita fares reasonable, he said.

“Look what happened when AirTran came in. (Fares) dropped,” Headley said. “If Southwest decides that Wichita is not a market they want to be in because they’re not getting the volume, they’re gone, and we’re in serious trouble.”

He thinks Wichita will give Southwest “a good run,” however. And airport officials will work hard to keep Southwest happy.

Passengers will find that flying to Chicago-Midway on Southwest is a “good deal,” he said. “And going to Texas and Dallas Love Field is not a bad deal.”

Southwest has a large system.

“We’ve got to use them,” Headley said. “We’ve got to support them. It really boils down to whether people fly them. I think they will.”

Southwest will have a nice honeymoon in Wichita, he said.

“Whether or not the marriage lasts, we’ll see,” Headley said.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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