Wichita and Sedgwick County have done a lot to strengthen and safeguard affordable air service over the past decade – with the help of state and local subsidies and against long economic, industry and political odds. But Wichita Mid-Continent Airport is only as strong as the commitment of business and leisure travelers to use it.
New traffic data underscores the danger: The number of passengers flying in and out of the airport declined a modest 2 percent last year and 0.84 percent the year before, but is nearly 110,000 fliers short of the peak of 1.6 million in 2008. The plunge in the number of flights is more worrisome, down to 33 daily flights last year compared with 53 in 2003. It didn’t help that Frontier Airlines ended its Denver service in November.
The use-it-or-lose-it reality will be just as true once Southwest Airlines arrives on June 2, replacing AirTran Airways’ current three daily flights to Atlanta with two daily flights to Chicago and Dallas and one daily flight to Las Vegas.
As Wichita State University associate professor Dean Headley told The Eagle’s Molly McMillin about Southwest: “We’ve got to use them. We’ve got to support them. It really boils down to whether people fly them. I think they will.”
If people don’t? “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 said.
Not only because Southwest is the low-fare king, but because consolidation and hard times have left no other discount carriers for Wichita to pursue in its wake.
For a glimpse of that bleak future, one need only go back to 1997, when low-fare Vanguard Airlines pulled out and Wichita saw the average cost of flights to Denver and Chicago soar by 223 and 137 percent, respectively, as passenger counts declined.
Back then, Wichita led the nation in the size of airfare increases. Before AirTran arrived in 2002 through the coordinated local “Fair Fares” effort, fares were 23 percent higher than the national average and the 10th highest in the nation.
Even after increases over the past three years, Wichita’s fares in the third quarter of 2012 were 10.1 percent less than they were in 2000, compared with a 9.1 percent increase nationwide and regional spikes as large as Tulsa’s 39.8 percent. That’s an impressive performance.
Getting an affordable fare out of Wichita still isn’t as easy as anyone would like, especially in certain directions. But as Gov. Sam Brownback, state legislators and city and county officials do their part to keep the Affordable Airfares Program funded, businesses and leisure travelers must make the effort to check Mid-Continent’s options and use the airport as much as possible. As they potentially save dollars and driving time, they will strengthen the numbers that will sustain Wichita’s air service long term.