Southwest Airlines would boost city

For decades, talk of landing a low-fare carrier at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport started with Southwest Airlines.

And abruptly ended.

“Forget Southwest. Yes, it’s the discount airline of choice, but it probably won’t be coming to Wichita in any of our lifetimes,” an Eagle editorial lamented in 2000.

If the problem wasn’t the Wright Amendment, that antiquated legislation limiting air service at Dallas’ Love Field, it was Wichita’s market size. Plus, a 2001 study indicated that a third of the people driving to other airports to avoid Mid-Continent’s high fares were doing so to fly Southwest, meaning a move to serve Wichita would cannibalize the carrier’s own regional passengers.

But according to an article by reporter Molly McMillin in Friday’s Eagle, conversations have been going on for at least a year and a half about Southwest serving Wichita to Las Vegas, Dallas and to Chicago through St. Louis. According to one source, the carrier has sought $3æmillion to offset startup costs and more money to cover losses for at least the first two years. One timeline reportedly would have the deal made by September to start service in June 2011.

“This is an opportunity the city CAN’T miss,” responded one Kansas.com reader.

It’s hard to disagree, putting pursuit of a Southwest deal on a par with ensuring that the state’s $5æmillion annual commitment to affordable air service survives the Legislature’s difficult budget process this month.

Bringing Southwest to Wichita would deliver untold economic benefits to the area.

That’s not just pie in the sky.

Wichita, Sedgwick County, the state and the region have eight years of proof in the form of the Fair Fares initiative, which has pooled public dollars to variously lure AirTran Airways and Frontier Airlines to Mid-Continent.

The results in leveraging low prices and boosting ridership across the board on the routes served -- in a decade that saw two recessions -- have been dramatic enough to persuade even some die-hard free marketers that subsidies have their place when it comes to Kansas’ largest airport.

The resulting ridership also got the attention of low-cost Allegiant Air, which, with Frontier, has lowered fares and increased options flying west as AirTran has done so flying east.

The potential benefits outlined in two studies -- one by Wichita State University assessing “XYZ airline” but believed to be Southwest -- provide more reasons to act, including 33.5, 37 and 39æpercent increases in airport activity over the carrier’s first three years in Wichita; 7,000 additional direct and indirect jobs in Wichita over three years; $29.5æmillion a year in travelers’ savings; and a 25æpercent ridership increase after five years.

Signing Southwest also might reassure taxpayers uneasy about the city’s plan to build a new $150æmillion terminal at Mid-Continent, perhaps to open in 2013.

These are unbelievably tough budget times for every government. But any political resistance to going deeper into the air-subsidy business should wane at the potential for what Southwest could do for south-central Kansas and the state as a whole, especially at a time when every business and job counts.

-- For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman