Don’t lose Fair Fares

State funding for affordable airfares at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport is under attack in Topeka, despite Gov. Sam Brownback’s welcome calls for full $5 million funding in both his State of the State address last month and his economic development strategic plan last week. Regional lawmakers and business leaders need to raise the volume and intensity of their bipartisan defense of this tested state investment in the Kansas economy, especially with Wichita potentially poised to land Southwest Airlines through its AirTran Airways merger.

With critics emboldened by a flawed state audit on the affordable airfares plan, the state funding barely survived an 11-11 vote in the House Appropriations Committee on Monday, with Reps. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro, and Doug Gatewood, D-Columbus, leading the charge to cut the subsidy.

But Brownback has it right on this issue, advocating in his State of the State speech for “full funding of Wichita Fair Fares to underpin this critical economic growth initiative in south-central Kansas,” and noting in his economic development plan that the program “passes a cost-benefit analysis.” As the plan also said: “Convenient and cost-effective access to one of the state’s primary business centers is consistent with the goal of expanding commerce to increase economic growth.”

There has been some grumbling elsewhere in Kansas since the state committed to contribute $5 million annually over five years to help sustain low-fare service at Mid-Continent, on top of $1 million a year that Wichita and Sedgwick County each invest. The complainers usually have homes convenient to the Tulsa or Kansas City, Mo., airports and no understanding of how sky-high fares in Wichita hurt business and the state.

Now, with the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit’s new report in hand, the critics are pushing hard to stop the subsidy entirely, seizing on the audit’s statement that the program’s economic impact “has been significantly overstated” without regard for where the auditors’ methodology fell short and what they said the program gets right.

In the case of one inaccuracy cited by auditors, the increase in passenger counts between 2000 and 2009 actually had been understated — the growth was 38 percent (not 23 percent, as reported by the Regional Economic Area Partnership, which facilitates the affordable airfares program).

Whether the return on the state’s investment is $5.25-to-$1 (as REAP said) or $2.32-to-$1 (as auditors said), the state is coming out ahead — especially in light of the number the recession has done on other kinds of investing. The same conclusion can be drawn about the program’s estimated job creation over six years (9,720, according to Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research, or 3,178, according to state auditors).

Even the audit report concludes: “Overall, the program appears to have had the desired effect” since local subsidies began in 2002, noting that “fares have decreased, while the number of passengers and the number of available flights have increased.”

Perhaps there are ways to increase accountability for the state funds, as the audit report recommends. But the state shouldn’t stop its support now, unless it wants to see Wichita lose its low-fare carriers and its chance to gain Southwest Airlines, and area business travelers again forced to drive three hours for a fair fare.