Eagle Editorial: Welcome aboard

Welcome to Wichita, Southwest Airlines. This long-awaited first day of the low-fare carrier’s service to Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas arrives at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport thanks to elected and business leaders across the years and political spectrum who have fought to keep air service strong and affordable at Kansas’ largest airport.

Those warriors have included the members of the Kansas congressional delegation who helped get rid of the Wright Amendment, the federal legislation that long put Kansas out of Southwest’s reach.

More recently, members of the Wichita City Council, Sedgwick County Commission and Kansas Legislature and three governors have approved public subsidies to help AirTran Airways and, for a time, Frontier Airlines serve Mid-Continent and the south-central Kansas economy – subsidies that Southwest officials made clear would be a critical component in any decision to add Wichita to the carrier’s cities.

Perhaps the defining moment in the courtship came in January 2012, as Southwest was still working through the uncertainty of its purchase of AirTran. That’s when Gov. Sam Brownback, Sen. Jerry Moran, Mayor Carl Brewer, Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh and key business leaders went on a remarkable joint mission to Dallas to appeal directly to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly.

Southwest’s decision to come to Wichita helped smooth the way forward on Mid-Continent’s new $101.5 million terminal, which will have 12 gates able to handle 2 million passengers a year when construction is finished in 2015.

And it will be crucial as Mid-Continent tries to counter the continuing woes of the airline industry. A new Massachusetts Institute of Technology study of small and medium hub airports from 2007 to 2011 found Wichita among the many cities that saw deep declines in departures (26 percent), seats (17.8 percent) and airlines (from 10 to seven), as airlines reduced capacity at small airports and consolidated service at large ones.

As real and regrettable as those cutbacks have been at ICT, things would have been worse if not for the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program and the lower fares AirTran leveraged along its route. ICT ranked 26th in the nation last year for the affordability of its flights, far better than prime competitors Oklahoma City (63rd), Kansas City, Mo., (74th) and Tulsa (76th).

Meanwhile, United Airlines began nonstop service from ICT to LAX in early May. And two 2010 studies foresaw Southwest service as a win for Wichita, predicting large increases in airport activity and ridership as well as thousands of new area jobs.

A city press release about the hoopla heralding Sunday’s first Southwest flight from Chicago did not exaggerate in calling the carrier’s arrival in Wichita “a venture that’s been more than 20 years in the making.”

Way back in 1989, The Eagle editorial board opined: “Whether now or in the future, Wichita can be a profitable market for Southwest.”

Now, business and leisure travelers need to support the airline, continue to support Mid-Continent – and do everything they can to help local air service stay affordable and robust.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman