Southwest exec hails airline’s arrival in Wichita

“Love is finally in the air in Wichita, Kansas, and it feels good,” Ron Ricks, executive vice president of Southwest Airlines said Monday during a rollicking news conference celebrating the arrival of Southwest in Wichita.

The day has been a long time in the making, officials said.

“I didn’t get here as soon as I wanted to, but I got here as fast as I could,” Ricks said.

Southwest’s arrival is the culmination of 30 years of work, airport officials said.

“Nobody ever gave up,” said Victor White, Wichita Airport Authority director of airports.

The news conference was attended by airport, city, county, state and chamber of commerce officials. They gave Ricks a standing ovation.

After the news conference, Ricks addressed the Wichita Aero Club, where he was the keynote speaker.

Never in Southwest’s history has the airline had the kind of reception it’s had in Wichita, Ricks said.

“It’s motivational,” Ricks said. “We have a great start.”

Now that it’s here, it’s important for travelers to use it to keep it here, officials said.

White, the director of airports, called Southwest’s arrival “momentous in the history of Wichita. ... This is a big deal.”

Now, he said, “please buy tickets on Southwest Airlines.”

Southwest began business in Wichita Sunday with two daily nonstop flights to Dallas and to Chicago and one daily flight to Las Vegas.

Chicago and Las Vegas are Southwest’s first- and second-busiest markets. Dallas is its seventh-largest market.

Because of the breadth and depth of its network, travelers can create 550 separate and distinct itineraries from these destinations, Ricks said.

In 2011, Southwest bought AirTran Airways, which until Sunday had served Wichita with three daily flights to Atlanta. It has been slowly transforming the AirTran markets into Southwest’s system since that time.

Southwest’s flight schedule offers 112 percent more “passenger seat availability” than did AirTran, the airline said.

Kansans know the importance of aviation and the airlines to our economy, said Gov. Sam Brownback, who attended the news conference.

Southwest gives the state improved access to air transportation and will boost economic development and benefit passengers in general, Brownback said.

It’s fitting that Southwest will now serve the town that builds the fuselages to the Boeing 737 planes the airline flies, Brownback said.

“Now these Southwest airplanes made in Wichita will land in Wichita,” Brownback said.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said Southwest’s arrival will raise the profile of the airport, increase economic development efforts and provide greater access to the community.

“Southwest will open up south-central Kansas to the rest of the country,” Brewer said.

If the service is successful, Southwest will expand here, Ricks said.

But “first we have to make it successful,” Ricks said. “We will just have to wait and see.”

The airline didn’t come to Wichita because of the state’s Affordable Airfares program, a revenue guarantee program that underwrites losses up to a certain amount.

But it plans to apply for the funds, which it qualifies for.

AirTran Airways has used the program each year. Revenue guarantees were a condition for the airline to begin service in Wichita.

They weren’t a prerequisite for Southwest, officials said.

“What we told Wichita was, ‘We’re coming,’ ” Ricks said during the press conference. “We’re prepared to make an investment in Wichita. We think that investment will pay off.”

Still, the program will be beneficial.

“It hedges the bet,” Ricks said. It helps provide a foundation that can help service grow faster.

Twenty-five years ago when jet fuel was 30 cents a gallon, airlines could take more chances on starting service.

Now, with jet fuel at $3.30 a gallon and shareholders to satisfy, you can’t just say let’s give it a shot, Ricks said after the press conference.

Officials said a trip to Southwest’s headquarters in Dallas in 2011 attended by airport, city, state, federal, chamber and aviation industry leaders was instrumental in ensuring that Southwest would serve Wichita after merging with AirTran.

The meeting was attended by Southwest’s leadership team, including its CEO Gary Kelly.

“We had a lot of horsepower in that room,” said Lynn Nichols, CEO of Yingling Aviation who was chairman of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce at the time.

Southwest’s acquisition of AirTran in 2011 did help Southwest make the decision, Ricks said.

AirTran had a different business model than Southwest and had figured out ways to serve smaller markets with fewer flights, Ricks said.

“Southwest learned from AirTran how to serve the network better,” he said.

Southwest’s focus had been on short-haul, high-frequency, point-to-point, low-cost service, he said. If a market wasn’t big enough for 12 flights a day, Southwest didn’t serve it.

But with high fuel prices, having more flights sometimes isn’t the smart thing to do, Ricks said.

Southwest is serving Wichita with 737 jets, which are larger and have more seats than AirTran’s 117-seat Boeing 717.

The 737s are more fuel efficient, making the per-seat costs lower to operate than AirTran’s, Ricks said.

The key is to make sure the planes have healthy load factors — how full the planes are.

The Dallas and Chicago routes will be served with the 143-seat Boeing 737-700 and the Las Vegas route will be served with the 137-seat Boeing 737-300.

Southwest operates more than 3,500 flights a day and serves 97 destinations.

Its entrance into Wichita means more low fares to more destinations to and from the state and access to the airline’s vast network, said Valerie Wise, air service and business development manager for the airport.

Southwest is expected to stimulate travel demand at Wichita and bring more passengers into the state, which creates a significant economic impact, airport officials said.

The airline is making a huge investment in the Wichita market, Ricks said.

Now, “we’re counting on you,” he told members of the Wichita Aero Club. “We’re asking you to act in your self-interest.”

If Southwest isn’t in the market, “you’ll pay higher air fares than if Southwest is in the market,” Ricks said. “If you buy, we’ll fly. If you don’t, we won’t.”

The airline business isn’t easy, Ricks said after rattling off the names of 30 airlines that have gone out of business during Ricks’ long career in the airline industry.

“You might conclude that the airline industry is a powerful magnet for the biggest collection of business management dummies,” Ricks said. “Or you might conclude there is something extraordinarily difficult and inherently challenging about the airline industry. ... There is something very, very hard about this business.”

Southwest is one of five biggest U.S. airlines and the only one of the five that has not filed for bankruptcy protection, Ricks said.

It’s the only one to have 40 consecutive years of profits, the only one not to have across-the-board employee furloughs and the only one not forced to cut employee benefits or wages, Ricks said.

Southwest is also the only one to have an investment-grade credit rating and also consistently scores at or near the top in customer-service rankings, he said.

And it’s the only one with a low-fare, full-service philosophy, Ricks said.

“And now Wichita has that airline,” he said.

“Southwest Airlines can bring in those beautiful planes that Spirit … helped manufacture,” he said. “We can bring in the employees. … We can give you the flights and we can give you the service. But we cannot guarantee our success. Only you can guarantee our success.”