State audit: Wichita-area officials overstated benefits from subsidized airfare program

TOPEKA — A program that subsidizes low-cost airline service to Wichita Mid-Continent Airport generates only about a third as many jobs as regional officials have claimed, according to a state audit.

The Legislative Division of Post Audit report also said that the Affordable Airfares Fund generates less than half as much overall economic benefit as was estimated in a 2008 Wichita State University study commissioned by the Airport Authority.

Officials of the Regional Economic Area Partnership, which administers the program, immediately questioned the audit findings, claiming that the auditors had made errors in methodology that understated both jobs and economic impacts.

The audit was presented today to the joint House-Senate Legislative Post Audit Committee, as the Legislature prepares to decide whether to continue contributing $5 million a year to the program.

The audit did credit the program with helping to increase traffic at Mid Continent and reduce the cost of flights in and out of Wichita.

According to the audit, the average price of a round-trip ticket dropped from about $390 to about $325 between 2006, when the state funding began, and 2009, the most recent year studied.

In 2006, Wichita airfares were more than 20 percent above the national average. By 2009, that gap had been trimmed to 5 percent, the audit said.

The audit also said passenger traffic at Mid-Continent increased 30 percent from 2000 to 2007 — a substantial number but less than the WSU study showed for the same years.