Tuesday marks big changes for Southwest Airlines at Wichita Eisenhower National Airport.
It’s the day that Southwest service to Dallas and Chicago ends, and new service to St. Louis and Phoenix begins.
For some Wichitans, it will be an inconvenience no longer having direct Southwest service to Love Field to the south and Midway Airport to the north.
But serving those routes proved uneconomical for the low-fare carrier. The end of a state subsidy program this year and competition on those routes with other major airlines serving Eisenhower National all but ensured the fate of Southwest service to those two cities.
With twice-daily service to St. Louis and once-daily service to Phoenix, a Southwest official said the airline thinks it has the right destinations to make Southwest service in Wichita work.
“This opens up more of the country to the Wichita traveler as well as bringing in better connecting opportunities for those travelers trying to reach Wichita,” Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said in an e-mail to The Eagle.
The presence of Southwest in Wichita, Eisenhower National officials argue, keeps the market competitive and fares affordable to other destinations.
“Having Southwest in our market stimulates passenger traffic on all of our airlines,” said Valerie Wise, air service and business development manager for the Wichita Airport Authority.
“Because other airlines will compete on fares, it’s possible you may find a lower fare on another airline. If you do, it’s likely because of the Southwest factor.”
Wise points to AirTran Airways and Frontier Airlines as to what happens in Wichita when a low-cost carrier leaves the market.
For example, after AirTran was acquired by Southwest and Southwest ended its nonstop service to Atlanta in June 2013, fares from Wichita rose on that route from $146 in the first quarter of 2013 to $243 in the first quarter of 2015, according to data from the airport authority.
When Frontier left Wichita in November 2012, fares from Wichita to Denver rose from $112 in the third quarter of 2012 to $210 in the third quarter of 2015.
Stretching back as far as 1979, Wichita officials had tried to lure Dallas-based Southwest, billed as the nation’s largest low-fare carrier. They were finally successful in 2012, when Southwest agreed to continue to serve Wichita following its $3.4 billion acquisition of AirTran in 2011.
Southwest officially began service from Wichita — to Dallas, Chicago and Las Vegas — in June 2013.
Shortly thereafter, Southwest began tapping into the state’s Affordable Airfares program, which was created several years earlier to lure low-fare carriers such as AirTran and Frontier to Wichita, and offset any losses they took on providing service in Wichita.
The Kansas Affordable Airfares program paid out $6.5 million in fiscal 2014 and $5.2 million in fiscal 2015 to Southwest. In those two fiscal years, the airline reported losses of more than $6.7 million on its Wichita-Chicago route and more than $5.7 million on its Wichita-Dallas route.
On those routes, Southwest was competing against American and United.
Last October, with the state subsidy program set to end in fiscal 2016 — which ends June 30 — Southwest announced it would eliminate its Chicago and Dallas service and replace it with daily flights to Phoenix and St. Louis. It will retain its once-daily flight to Las Vegas.
“The subsidies were a great way for Southwest to begin operating in the Wichita market a few years ago while also proving to be valuable to help lower fares on certain routes,” said Landson, the Southwest spokesman.
New York-based airline industry consultant Robert Mann said Dallas is a busy hub for Southwest and space there is at a premium. It makes sense, Mann said, that Southwest would change its service to and from there to accommodate its busiest flights.
“I think it’s more the case that Love Field in particular is a real choke point for them, and they’re trying to unload it of their least profitable services and load it with more profitable services,” he said. “It’s a similar case at Midway.
“The real loss here is people who were local Wichita-to-Dallas customers.”
Landson said the decision to replace Dallas and Chicago with Phoenix and St. Louis was “based on the demands of local travelers.”
“With much more capacity serving the DFW Metroplex and the Chicago region, we saw a nice opportunity to begin service to cities not currently available on a nonstop basis from Wichita,” he said. “This new pattern will better suit the needs of our customers since they will now have better access to our network on both sides of the country as well as being able to reach Chicago and Dallas.”
Landson also pointed out that Southwest will be the only airline providing nonstop service from Wichita to St. Louis.
Southwest’s hub at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport will provide connections to 18 Midwest and East Coast cities.
According to information from the Wichita Airport Authority, Southwest’s 6:10 a.m. flight from Eisenhower to St. Louis will allow Wichita travelers to connect to 15 of those cities, spend five to six hours in those cities, and return to Wichita on the same day, at 10:45 p.m.
Those cities are: Nashville, Tenn.; Atlanta; Baltimore; Philadelphia; Newark, N.J.; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Orlando, Fla.; New York; Boston; Detroit; Washington; Little Rock; Houston; and Minneapolis.
St. Louis is Southwest’s second-fastest growing airport in terms of new routes, behind Dallas, Landson said.
For several decades, St. Louis was a regular connection from Wichita.
According to an e-mail from the airport’s Wise, nonstop service from Wichita to St. Louis was offered as early as 1954 by the former Braniff Airways. Over the years, it was served by a number of other airlines including the former Continental Airlines and Trans World Airlines, which operated a major hub in St. Louis until it was acquired by American Airlines.
American continued Wichita-St. Louis service until 2010.
Mann, the consultant, said for Wichita travelers wanting to fly Southwest to Chicago or Dallas, “the real loss” is having to now connect through St. Louis.
But, there are some upsides. Namely it’s a less congested airport for Southwest, which means connecting to flights there should be more reliable for Wichita travelers and provide them “a better experience.”
“There’s just a ton of additional hub and runway capacity there,” Mann said.
Southwest will have competition on the Phoenix route but will have more frequency of flights there and to a different airport: Phoenix Sky Harbor International.
Allegiant Travel Co. has offered twice-weekly service to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport since November 2009, Allegiant spokesman Brandon Myers said. In the peak summer months, the frequency of those flights increases to three times a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday — he said.
“We’re pleased with our service in Wichita,” Myers said, adding that Allegiant doesn’t expect Southwest’s service to Phoenix to affect its service there.
Between Southwest’s service from Wichita to Las Vegas and Phoenix, Wichita travelers will be able to connect to 16 cities in the West, officials said.
Phoenix, Landson said, is Southwest’s sixth-busiest airport for daily departures. Wise said Phoenix is Wichita’s fifth most-popular destination.
Southwest seems committed to make Wichita work, even without the subsidies.
“While the subsidies were never part of the business model, it helped us get our feet on the ground in Wichita and grow our footprint and customer base,” Landson said. “In addition, Southwest has built strong community partnerships … in the Wichita market.”
Mann said the airline is “very calculating” and wouldn’t have made the decision to stay in Wichita by offering alternative routes if it didn’t think St. Louis and Phoenix service could work long term.
“I don’t think you would have seen the continuation of Las Vegas or the new service to Phoenix and St. Louis if they didn’t have the intent to stay and make it work over time,” Mann said.
St. Louis connecting flights
▪ Minneapolis-St. Paul
▪ San Antonio
▪ Nashville, Tenn.
▪ Columbus, Ohio
▪ Washington, D.C.
▪ Tampa, Fla.
▪ Orlando, Fla.
▪ Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
▪ Newark, N.J.
▪ New York
Source: Southwest Airlines
Phoenix, Las Vegas connecting flights
▪ Salt Lake City
▪ Boise, Idaho
▪ Ontario, Calif.
▪ Los Angeles
▪ Burbank, Calif.
▪ Orange County, Calif.
▪ San Jose, Calif.
▪ Oakland, Calif.
▪ San Francisco
▪ Sacramento, Calif.
▪ Reno, Nevada
▪ Portland, Ore.
▪ Spokane, Wash.
Source: Southwest Airlines