Wichita Mid-Continent Airport has arrived. At least that’s how it felt Monday to learn that Southwest Airlines, the nation’s largest domestic carrier, plans five daily Mid-Continent flights beginning June 2, with two flights to Dallas Love Field, two to Chicago Midway and one to Las Vegas.
Wichita already knew Southwest was coming. After decades of courtship by the community and state, the airline said last January that it would serve Wichita once it completed its merger with AirTran Airways, which has flown in and out of Wichita since 2002.
But the community had to wait until Monday to learn the details of that commitment. The ability to fly Southwest between Wichita and three major markets to the west, south and east will be a boost for the region’s economic development, increasing airport activity and ridership while saving money for business and leisure travelers. The Chicago leg alone will plug Wichita fliers into a Southwest schedule of 231 daily departures from Midway.
The westward route is particularly well-timed, given Frontier Airlines’ recent exit from Mid-Continent. And high fares to Texas have been a long-standing problem for Wichita.
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By leveraging lower fares across its routes, Southwest’s presence in the market will attract more fliers to Mid-Continent from across the region, and make Wichita more competitive as it tries to recruit businesses, conventions and young talent.
And though Southwest initially may use Affordable Airfares program funding to mitigate “risk,” according to Bob Montgomery, Southwest’s vice president for airport affairs, its goal is to attract enough riders to make the subsidies unnecessary.
The kind of success that ends the need for subsidized air service would be everybody’s preference. Still, it was encouraging that Gov. Sam Brownback endorsed a continuation of state support for affordable air service.
“The program is doing what we want,” Brownback said Monday.
Southwest service to Wichita is the reward for all those efforts by former congressmen Todd Tiahrt and Dan Glickman, former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum and others to overturn the Wright Amendment limiting Love Field service; all the unified advocacy at the Statehouse over three gubernatorial administrations on behalf of state support for the Affordable Airfares program; and all the sustaining contributions from the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County over the past decade.
Southwest’s plans also affirm the city’s decision to build a new $101.5 million terminal and parking garage, with completion scheduled for early 2015. Southwest and Mid-Continent’s other carriers won’t have to wonder whether the airport will meet their needs.
The one cloud over Monday’s announcement was that Southwest won’t pick up AirTran’s three daily flights to Atlanta. Local leaders will need to watch what happens with only Delta Air Lines serving Atlanta, and seek other carriers as necessary to keep the route accessible and affordable.
But at least Wichita and Kansas now know not only that Southwest is coming, but where it will be going out of Wichita.
Southwest Airlines in Wichita – and they said it couldn’t be done.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman