County approves subsidy for AirTran

Sedgwick County will continue to kick in money to keep AirTran Airways flying out of Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

Commissioners voted 4 to 1 on Wednesday to provide a $6.5 million guarantee — or subsidy — to the low-cost airline. Most of that money, just less than $5 million, will come from a state grant. The county will split local funding with the city of Wichita at a cost of $812,500 each.

Kelly Parks voted against the subsidy, hoping to delay the vote until the county could learn more about efforts to bring another low-cost carrier, Southwest Airlines, to Wichita.

The city recently confirmed that it has been in talks with Southwest. Those talks involve spending as much as $3 million initially to bring Southwest here to provide nonstop flights to St. Louis, Las Vegas and Dallas' Love Field.

While Parks and Gwen Welshimer sought to delay the vote, other commissioners said they saw no need to wait because the vote was about AirTran, not Southwest.

"The issue that's before you has nothing to do with Southwest," Chris Chronis the county's chief financial officer, told commissioners.

Since AirTran began serving Wichita in 2002, people traveling out of Wichita have saved tens of millions of dollars in airfare, according to Chronis.

Wichita passengers on AirTran routes last year paid 34 percent less — or an average of $78 less per one-way ticket — compared to fares before AirTran entered the market, according to the county.

"We think it is a very good deal for our community," Chronis said, "and a very good use of public funds because as you know low airfares are a key driver of economic development."

Although expressing concern about the "moral hazard" of subsidies, commission chairman Karl Peterjohn said AirTran has been "absolutely first-rate in terms of meeting their commitment in terms of the contract."

Peterjohn said he was not privy to the city's talks with Southwest and asked Chronis for information.

"There is no proposal that we have seen regarding a revenue guarantee for Southwest," Chronis said.

He said it was his understanding that there have been talks between airport leaders and city staff with Southwest, "but we are not aware of the state of those discussions."

Although voting for the AirTran guarantee, Welshimer expressed concern about the amount of subsidies the county is giving to businesses overall.

The county is "getting to the point where we make so many incentive payments to big business that we lose track of how much of our budget is going there and how much we can afford to do in the future. It keeps growing and growing."