Southwest gets $2.52 million in subsidies, will add flights in fall

A Southwest Airlines 737 sits at the gate at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport. (July 17, 2013)
A Southwest Airlines 737 sits at the gate at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport. (July 17, 2013) File photo

Southwest Airlines for the first time has tapped into the state’s Affordable Airfares program to help underwrite losses on its Wichita service.

In June, Southwest began service from Wichita, flying daily to Dallas, Chicago and Las Vegas.

The carrier received $2.52 million in subsidies for service provided during July, August and September, said Chris Chronis, Sedgwick County chief financial officer.

Southwest has not yet applied for funds for service after September, Chronis said, although he expects it will.

The Texas-based airline bought AirTran Airways for $1.4 billion in 2010 and has been transitioning the cities it serves from AirTran to Southwest routes.

With the changes, AirTran service from Wichita to Atlanta ceased in June.

The state allocates $5 million a year for the Affordable Airfare program, formed to provide more flight options, more competition for air travel and more affordable airfares, according to information about the program.

Funding must be approved by the Kansas Legislature each year.

Under the program, Garden City has been receiving $250,000 a year.

Southwest, like AirTran before it, is eligible for up to $6.5 million a fiscal year to help underwrite losses on its Wichita service.

Above the state’s portion of the funding, the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County equally contribute the balance.

AirTran received payments of $6.5 million for the fiscal year that ran from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2013, Chronis said.

For Southwest, “I fully expect we will pay the entire $6.5 million before the contract year is up,” Chronis said.

Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said the carrier has been pleased with the performance and response in the Wichita market so far.

“I would say it’s right on track for what we’ve hoped for and targeted,” Mainz said. “It’s been very steady and strong, and we’re pleased with the performance so far.”

The Affordable Airfare program “is significant and substantial in a relatively new market for us,” Mainz said. “It helps us get our footing and helps establish Southwest in the market. We do hope demand will warrant our level of service. We participate in the program. We feel like it’s very beneficial. But the No. 1 thing that we look at is the demand for Southwest service, and we look to be profitable with the level of service that we have. ... There has to be a market for Southwest service. That is the main aspect that we would look at to dictate our level of service.”

The carrier has set its overall schedule through Aug. 8, Mainz said. Southwest isn’t planning to add or reduce service in Wichita during that time, he said.

On Monday, Southwest announced that it will start nonstop flights from Dallas to New York, Los Angeles, Washington and 12 other cities this fall, when federal limits on the airline’s home airport end.

It will fly from Love Field to five cities starting Oct. 13 and then add 10 more on Nov. 2.

Customers will be able to book flights on those routes starting in May, Mainz said.

Those routes are currently off-limits to Southwest’s Boeing 737 jets because of a 1980 law designed to protect nearby Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Under the Wright Amendment, as the law was called, planes bigger than 56 seats could fly from Love Field only to other cities in Texas and a few nearby states.

Southwest expects to add nearly 20 flights a day from Love Field.

On Oct. 13, Southwest will start flying from Dallas to Chicago; Baltimore; Denver; Las Vegas; and Orlando, Fla. On Nov. 2, it will add New York’s LaGuardia Airport; Washington’s Reagan National Airport; Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Ana, Calif.; Atlanta; Nashville; Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, Fla.; and Phoenix.

That’s good news for Wichita, Mainz said. It will give Wichita travelers more options for connecting flights.

“It opens up the network,” he said. “For all those 15 nonstop cities, it’s going to be much easier for folks to travel from Wichita to any one of those cities through Dallas.”

Southwest will be able to use Dallas as a connecting point for Wichita travelers.

Before, Wichita travelers could connect only to certain cities. Now they will be able to catch connecting flights to many more cities around the country.

“If you want to go to New York or D.C. or anywhere, it should have a very positive effect on Wichita,” Mainz said.

Contributing: Associated Press.