If Wichita wants to grow its economy, it needs people to use its airport.
And that includes people who put off taking vacations, business leaders say.
I Fly Wichita, an economic development initiative launched by regional economic development groups, hopes to get people to commit to using Dwight D. Eisenhower Airport, which opened a $200 million terminal in 2015.
More people flying local means good things for the local economy, leaders of the initiative say. They want people to take a survey and get others to make the pledge to fly local.
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At a kickoff breakfast for the initiative Wednesday, four panelists explained the air-travel fingerprint on their industries. Their message was clear: Everyone can do something to help keep Wichita’s airport successful.
Whether it’s booking business flights through Wichita instead of Kansas City or Tulsa or telling a neighbor to check out the new terminal, everyone can do something, said Gary Plummer, president of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce.
That includes using vacation time, Plummer said, which Wichitans are particularly bad about.
It’s that Midwest work ethic that makes Wichita attractive to businesses, but it could be holding back future growth, Plummer said.
Kansas workers leave more than a work week of unused vacation time on the table each year. As a state, Kansas racked up more than 6.5 million unused vacation days, according to U.S. Travel Association data compiled by the group Project: Time Off.
That’s time people could be traveling, Plummer said.
A record 1,665,116 people flew in and out of Wichita in 2018, the sixth year of growth in a row, according to Dwight D. Eisenhower Airport’s numbers.
That number could grow if more people used their vacation time to travel. The more people traveling, the more direct flights, competitive airfare prices and connecting flights, Plummer said.
“Even an extra 20 to 25 people a day can make a world of difference,” he said.
Having affordable airfares, good connecting flights, more nonstop flights and larger aircraft directly affects business, Plummer said. It helps businesses recruit the best workers — because young talent wants to be able to travel back home — and it helps draw big events — because site selection committees consider an area’s available flights before booking a city.
Wichita had 13 non-stop destinations with seven airlines and four low-fare airlines in 2018. But I Fly Wichita wants that growth to continue. The goal is to add nonstop flights to New York City, Baltimore, Charlotte, Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, San Francisco, Portland and Salt Lake City in the future.
Moji Rosson, vice president of sales for Visit Wichita and a panelist Wednesday, said those kinds of flights help draw events like the NCAA Basketball Tournament to town.
“Here’s just a small example of how air service can make our region more attractive,” Rosson said. “We have bowlers coming from all over the country for our National Bowling Congress Women’s Championships this spring. And these women are so excited that they can fly Southwest. Why? Because they can fly their bowling balls for free.”
Rosson was one of four panelists speaking at the kickoff event, which filled its 300 seats within 24 hours of invitations being sent out. Devin Hansen, Sunflower Travel; Evan Rosell, Project Wichita, Greater Wichita Partnership; and Mike Zucconi, Hesston College, rounded out the panel.
Each explained how important the airport is to their fields.
For Hansen, it’s more customers. For Rosell, it’s more talent coming to the region. For Zucconi, it’s a first impression for out-of-state and out-of-country students.
The initiative is backed by the South Central Kansas Economic Development District, Regional Economic Area Partnership of South Central Kansas, Greater Wichita Partnership, Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce and Visit Wichita. City and county governments in Newton, Wichita, Butler County and Sedgwick County are also on board.
It has a website, iflywichita.com, and asks vistors to take a survey about their air travel behaviors and to share the website through social media to show a commitment to fly local.
Valerie Wise, air service and business development manager for the Wichita Airport Authority, is tasked with maintaining and bringing additional flights and airlines to Eisenhower Airport. She said an initiative like I Fly Wichita shows airlines how much the community cares about its air services.
“Something like this is good,” Wise said. But she said it is a lengthy and complicated process to add coastal flights, and adding more nonstop flights will require thought and discussion.
“Any flights we add will have to be strategic, because we want to make sure we don’t cannibalize our other flights. With a market our size, we have to be careful of that.”