Show vision and land Southwest

Just days after AirTran Airways resumed flying nonstop to Orlando as well as Atlanta, the Sedgwick County Commission will be asked today to approve the latest contract for AirTran to serve Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. The commission should keep this good thing going for another year.

By variously authorizing such a use of public dollars since 2002, the county commissioners and Wichita City Council members have done what was necessary to keep low-fare carriers AirTran and Frontier Airlines flying in and out of Mid-Continent. Their leadership, along with the program's success, inspired the state to kick in $25 million over five years — a commitment that even survived the fiscal 2011 budget crisis.

According to Sedgwick County, Wichita fliers on AirTran routes last year saved 34 percent, or an average $78 per one-way fare, compared with fares on the same routes before AirTran came to Mid-Continent in 2001.

And if the County Commission decided against approving the latest state-fueled $6.5 million revenue guarantee for AirTran, including $812,500 in county funds (to be matched by the city of Wichita), AirTran probably would leave town, leading to fare increases costing travelers perhaps $50 million a year, according to the county.

Meanwhile, county commissioners and Wichita City Council members need to ramp up the enthusiasm about the opportunity to make a similar deal with Southwest Airlines — at least more enthusiasm than most of them showed with their cautious remarks in an article in the Sunday Eagle.

True, the proposal isn't final, though the airline reportedly needs $3 million in public funds initially to offer service starting next spring that would connect Wichita travelers to Dallas, Chicago and Las Vegas via St. Louis.

Committing to such a subsidy deal would be tough given the current budget challenges, as well as the looming county and city elections. How a Southwest deal would affect AirTran's service is also a concern.

But few things these governing bodies can do will have a greater benefit to the local business climate and tourism and convention markets. Southwest was the goal, even before the idea of public subsidies and business buy-in took the form of the Fair Fares initiative.

Wichita surely could "get along" without Southwest, to use County Commissioner Gwen Welshimer's phrase. But it would be better to have Southwest here and gain ground — with one-third more airport activity in the first year and at least 7,000 direct and indirect jobs over three years, according to a Wichita State University study.

If elected officials now decide Southwest is too much of a bother fiscally or politically, they'll pass up what could be a sea change in air service for Wichita and the entire region. This is a time to show vision and creativity, a time to lead.