All of a sudden, the long-held dream of winning Southwest Airlines for Wichita Mid-Continent Airport looks more possible than ever. The low-fare leader would be a game-changer for Wichita's air service, making it vital that the community act fast and decisively to make a deal.
According to director of airports Victor White, the airline at last appears willing to serve Wichita if local leaders are able to come up with the incentives necessary. If a deal can be made by fall, the service might involve seven or eight daily flights through St. Louis starting in June 2011.
The next move appears to be Wichita's. It will test the political will of elected officials, as it challenges local leaders to respond with uncommon focus and unity. Finding the dollars to allow a deal will be made more difficult because of the downturn's effect on local budgets.
But as Wichita attorney and economic development leader Harvey Sorensen told The Eagle, "The better air service you have, the more business you can do."
Two recent studies supported the view that Southwest would build on the current affordable airfares program in leveraging low fares and boosting ridership at Mid-Continent — forecasting 33.5, 37 and 39 percent increases in airport activity and 7,000 additional direct and indirect jobs over such a carrier's first three years in Wichita, as well as $29.5 million annually in savings for travelers.
Mid-Continent is better positioned to make the case for Southwest than even a few weeks ago, because of the strong commitment just made by the state Legislature to affordable air service. In approving another $5 million to help Mid-Continent for a fifth year, despite a state budget crisis, lawmakers across the state signaled their appreciation for the success of Wichita's nine-year experience with public incentives to keep AirTran Airways and Frontier Airlines flying. To their credit, members of the south-central Kansas legislative delegation stood ready to defend the subsidies as a proven tool to promote economic growth.
Now, with the top community and regional priority creating jobs and pulling south-central Kansas out of its economic funk, Wichita can't go wrong in going after Southwest.