Emerging from a brutal legislative session with a sixth year of state funding wasn’t enough. The public partnership that keeps AirTran Airways and its low fares at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport also depends on Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita, which are being asked to renew their support for another year.
That buy-in will come with some uncertainty. It’s still hard to know what AirTran’s purchase by Southwest Airlines will mean for Wichita long term. Before the deal was final May 2, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said the airline would “make every effort to keep every AirTran city that they’re currently serving.”
Then there was Monday’s news that Garden City had won $250,000 of the state funding, which it plans to use for regional jet service to Dallas. That meant the Regional Economic Area Partnership, which administers the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program, approved $4.75 million in state funding for Wichita service instead of the $5 million available in past years.
With the new AirTran contract, which is scheduled to be considered by Sedgwick County commissioners today, calling for up to $6.5 million in revenue guarantees through next June, the county and city will be expected to come up with more than the $812,500 each spent last year.
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AirTran would continue to provide daily service between Wichita and Atlanta on Boeing 717 jets. The deal would apply to any direct flights AirTran might add between Wichita and Orlando.
Going forward, there also is the question of Frontier Airlines, which has provided service to Denver under a $333,750 revenue guarantee from the city and county that expired June 30.
And like some state legislators, local elected officials may have new reservations about the airfare subsidies because of a recent state audit’s conclusion that their economic impact and job creation had been overstated. Even so, the audit put the return on the state’s investment at $2.32-to-$1, cited 38 percent growth in passenger counts between 2000 and 2009, and said “fares have decreased, while the number of passengers and the number of available flights have increased.”
Hanging onto AirTran and its ability to leverage lower fares across its routes becomes more important now that the City Council has given a green light to build a new $200 million terminal at Mid-Continent.
As the state auditors noted, “the program appears to have had the desired effect” since local subsidies began in 2002. It helps keep Mid-Continent busy with 40 departing flights a day and more than 1.5 million passengers a year, while lowering the cost of doing business in south-central Kansas.
With the crucial help of area lawmakers, Wichita made that case in Topeka this year. Now it’s time again for Sedgwick County and Wichita to put their own dollars toward the cause of affordable air service.