Airline merger could be game-changer

With Southwest Airlines planning to buy rival AirTran Airways, Wichita could realize its longtime dream of joining Southwest's destinations by happenstance, rather than by having to win over the low-fare carrier with its public incentives and passenger counts.

Just weeks after renewed City Hall efforts to bring Southwest to Wichita Mid-Continent Airport fell short, it's hard not to hope that an AirTran-Southwest merger will be a game-changer for the region's air service.

Think of it: Wichita fliers may be able to benefit from a merged low-fare airline serving more than 100 U.S. cities — all with roomy Boeing aircraft and the Southwest perks of unassigned seating and no baggage fees.

Asked about the access Southwest would gain to 37 airports, including many small ones, CEO Gary Kelly was quoted as saying the airline assumed "we'll keep all of them."

Mike Boyd, president of Colorado-based airline consultant Boyd Group, bolstered hopes by telling The Eagle that at least AirTran's Wichita-Atlanta service seemed likely to survive.

"Only because you (Wichita) drag in passengers that are business travelers from all over the country," Boyd said. "Business travelers are what (airlines) want."

They are what Wichita wants, too, because business travel is key to doing business and serving economic growth.

Boyd did question whether Southwest would want to continue in markets such as Wichita where AirTran service is subsidized by public revenue guarantees.

But as Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, observed to The Eagle, "Southwest was thinking about coming here anyhow." The possibility of public subsidies was central to those negotiations, which concerned possible service to Las Vegas, Dallas and St. Louis. If revenue guarantees were worth discussing then, surely they will be again.

Meanwhile, a Southwest-AirTran merger could increase public support for plans to build a new $160 million terminal at Mid-Continent, a project that city finance staff has recommended be postponed but that won the Wichita Airport Advisory Board's recommendation last week.

The merger also will put pressure on the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, the city, Sedgwick County and the Regional Economic Area Partnership to ensure that the Legislature extends its $5 million annual support for the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program past next summer — a tall request, given the state's fiscal problems and the call by the likely gubernatorial winner, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., for a spending freeze.

The happy scenario in which Wichita suddenly would gain access to Southwest as well as AirTran might not play out, and the $1.4 billion Southwest-AirTran merger still must pass muster with regulators and shareholders. In this economy, especially in the long-suffering airline industry, nobody can predict the near future with certainty.

But the wedding plans of Southwest and AirTran may be the best news Wichita has heard in a long time.