For years, Wichitans dreamed of Southwest Airlines serving the city. But unless more business and leisure travelers start flying the discount carrier, the reality could be short-lived.
And if Southwest pulls out after its subsidy ends next June, airfares will increase. Dramatically.
Area leaders spent years trying to bring Southwest to Wichita. Former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt worked to lift federal rules restricting Southwest flights to its Dallas hub. Gov. Sam Brownback, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and other leaders traveled to Dallas in 2012 to try to woo Southwest CEO Gary Kelly.
The effort finally paid off in 2013, when Southwest officially began serving Wichita after having acquired AirTran Airways.
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After Southwest entered the market, airfares to Chicago and Dallas declined 22 and 54 percent, respectively, while passenger counts soared. But the airline has struggled to make a profit.
Southwest lost more than $3.3 million on its Chicago route and more than $2.3 million on its Dallas route in fiscal year 2015, which ended on June 30, according to data from Sedgwick County. Its Las Vegas route is the only one that made a profit – nearly $352,000 this past fiscal year.
As a result, Southwest received $6.5 million in subsidies from the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program in fiscal year 2014 and $5.2 million in 2015. But the state is ending its support of the subsidy program after this current fiscal year, and there is no indication yet that the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County will try on their own to keep the subsidy going.
Southwest officials said from the start that they wanted the subsidy to be temporary. But if its routes aren’t profitable, will its service end once the subsidy expires?
Business analysts say it is almost certain that Southwest will eventually pull out. Southwest spokesman Dan Landson also noted in an e-mail to The Eagle that the airline has “a responsibility to maximize our fleet and operate on profitable routes.”
If that happens, airfares for those routes are certain to rise. Case in point: Fares to Atlanta and Denver jumped 71 and 83 percent, respectively, after AirTran and Frontier Airlines flights ended in 2013 and 2012.
A Southwest pullout would hurt the local economy by increasing business costs. It might also lead to more people driving to Kansas City, Mo., or Oklahoma City to catch cheaper flights, which would be a major blow to the new Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport.
The best way to prevent that from happening is for more travelers to choose Southwest when they can. Currently, it has the fourth highest passenger total at Eisenhower Airport.
Southwest could also help by offering more route options and a more business-friendly schedule.
Wichitans have seen this before. A low-cost carrier comes to town, which causes other airlines to lower their prices. But when not enough people use the discount carrier and it pulls out, prices immediately jump.
Southwest likely is the city’s last chance to keep airfares affordable. Use it or lose it.
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee