AirTran, transitioning to Southwest Airlines, will stay in Wichita

01/13/2012 5:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:08 AM

The country’s largest low-fare carrier will finally arrive in Wichita.

Gov. Sam Brownback on Friday announced that AirTran will remain in Wichita and transition to Southwest Airlines in 2013. Chamber and city officials said hundreds of local companies made verbal commitments to support Southwest.

“It’s an important day, a great day for us,” Brownback said at a news conference at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Southwest has not made a decision on what routes it will fly from Wichita, said Victor White, the city’s director of airports. White said he hopes to have an idea of Southwest’s routes in a month or so, after the low-fare carrier completes a market study.

A Southwest spokesman said that he couldn’t confirm when the airline will know what its routes from Wichita will be.

“We haven’t put a timeline on that,” said spokesman Chris Mainz. “It’s an ongoing effort.”

Brownback and other officials said the commitment from Southwest was made to them by Southwest CEO Gary Kelly at a meeting a week ago in Dallas. They said Kelly told them it was important that Southwest have access to the state’s affordable airfares program, $5 million of which is funded annually from the state along with $1 million each from the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County.

“They made clear this is a critical component for them to enter the market,” said Lynn Nichols, past chamber chairman and president of Yingling Aviation, who was among a group of eight officials from Kansas and Wichita who attended the meeting with Southwest last Friday. The others were Brownback, White, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, Mayor Carl Brewer, Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh, Spirit AeroSystems CEO Jeff Turner and retired Cessna chairman and CEO Jack Pelton.

But White said Southwest has “not asked for anything specific” from the affordable airfares program.

Brownback included funding for the airfare program in his proposed 2013 budget, which the Kansas Legislature still has to approve.

White said he expects AirTran to continue to operate its route from Wichita to Atlanta. He said he doesn’t know whether AirTran’s frequency of flights from Mid-Continent Airport will change in the interim. AirTran operates three daily flights to Atlanta.

Last year Southwest completed its acquisition of AirTran in a deal valued at $3.4 billion.

Mainz, of Southwest, said it’s likely that the Boeing 717s AirTran uses in Wichita will continue to be used by Southwest, only under Southwest’s colors.

“As part of the integration process we will paint the planes and they will be branded Southwest,” Mainz said. Though Southwest’s fleet exclusively uses Boeing 737s — the fuselages of which are built by Spirit — Southwest expects at this point to hang on to many of the AirTran 717s that are still being leased.

Carrier long sought

Getting Southwest to serve Wichita has long been a goal of local government and business leaders.

Pelton said in an interview after the news conference that he’s been involved in the effort to bring Southwest here for seven years.

“Southwest, for any community, is viewed as the crown jewel of low-fare carriers,” he said.

Pelton said he got involved in the effort because he saw having Southwest here as an important tool for recruiting engineers at Cessna. When engineers and other professionals move to Wichita, he said, they want to “be able to go places” conveniently and affordably.

“You sell the company, and you sell the quality of life,” he said.

Business leaders see having Southwest here as crucial to their business operations because of the 72 markets it flies to, including St. Louis, Dallas, Denver and Chicago.

Walter Berry, president of the Berry Cos. and chamber chairman, said he recently had to send 12 of his staff to the company’s operation in Houston. Berry flew six of them in his private plane. The other six had to drive to Oklahoma City to catch a Southwest flight to Houston because that was the cheapest option. With Southwest in Wichita, “it shrinks our world and gets us closer” to clients and operations, Berry said.

Berry said he is confident that Wichita businesses will support Southwest. He said within 48 hours the chamber was able to get verbal commitments from more than 400 companies that said they would support flying Southwest if it came here. Local officials shared that list with Southwest.

Southwest is also an economic development tool, said the county’s Unruh.

“It’s a vital selling point to retain and recruit businesses to our community,” Unruh said.

Pelton said Southwest officials have been to Wichita “many, many times” over the years, meeting with people such as himself as well as city and county government officials and studying the viability of adding Wichita to its system.

“They know Wichita as well as we do,” he said.

Brewer said in an interview after the news conference that he remembers a visit to Wichita by about a half-dozen Southwest officials in 2008, who were here to study the market and look at the airport. Brewer said that back then he and others were a little worried about what AirTran would think of having Southwest officials in town.

But he didn’t know it would be a moot point some two years later, when Southwest acquired AirTran.

Unruh noted Friday that Southwest’s plans were a good way to end the week and to maybe offset the effects of Boeing’s announcement less than two weeks ago that it was closing its Wichita facilities, which employ 2,160 people.

“Hopefully this will help cheer everyone up,” Unruh said. “We need to take some of the bad news in stride and celebrate the good news today.”

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