By Michael Hooper and Fred Davis
Allegiant Air announced Friday it will end its flights between Topeka and Las Vegas on July 30 after a year of service.
"Unfortunately, due to lack of market demand, we will end our Las Vegas service from Topeka," said Maurice J. Gallagher, Allegiant Air president and chief executive officer. "We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause our customers."
Allegiant Air began service from Forbes Field on March 24, 2006. The company announced the flights on Jan. 17, 2006, in a news conference that included Las Vegas showgirl Porsha.
Tyri Squyres, director of corporate communications for Allegiant Air, said the performance of the Topeka-Las Vegas route has been trending negatively.
"It never met our expectations of generating the market demand we'd hope to get," she said.
She said some Topeka-Las Vegas flights have been full, but other factors, such as the low fares and high cost of fuel, make the route uneconomical.
Michael Humberd, president of the Metropolitan Topeka Airport Authority, who learned Allegiant was pulling out of Topeka 30 minutes before the media did, said it came down to the airline sticking to its low-fare business plan.
"They can't charge high enough prices," he said.
Although Humberd said flights have been at 78 percent to 80 percent occupancy, a target number for airlines, the money generated wasn't enough to reach the profit margin Allegiant was seeking.
Another factor in Allegiant not drumming up sufficient demand is Topeka's proximity to Kansas City International. Squires said low fares offered by other carriers there make it difficult for Allegiant to compete.
"People shop and look at us and Kansas City and compare us apples to apples," she said. "They look just at the fares."
Allegiant had hoped northeast Kansas residents would prefer less expensive parking and less drive time when flying from Topeka compared to KCI, which is a 75-minute drive from the capital city.
Humberd agreed that the KCI factor didn't help Topeka.
"If it's cheaper, people are going to drive to Kansas City," he said.
Squires said the average fare from Topeka to Las Vegas has been about $80 one way and there wasn't enough demand to raise fares.
News of Allegiant stopping its Topeka service came as a surprise to many passengers who were using the airline Friday night.
"I'm real upset about it," said Grace Brunton, a Topeka native who was waiting for the 7:50 p.m. flight to Las Vegas.
Brunton, who lives in Las Vegas, has flown the airline three times with her granddaughter to visit Brunton's sister and brother-in-law in Topeka.
"I thought they were doing really well," she said of the predominately full flights.
Darrell and Debbie Umscheid, of Manhattan, also were surprised of the closing due to lack of market demand.
"I didn't see many empty seats," Debbie Umscheid said. "It wasn't sparse, and flying (to Las Vegas) it was full."
Arriving Friday night after vacationing the past week in Las Vegas, the Umscheids said they liked the relative ease of parking and short jaunt to Topeka from Manhattan.
But not everyone disagreed with Allegiant's decision.
"I believe it, there wasn't a lot of people on the plane," said Ron Harris, who along with his wife, Debra, arrived Friday after a trip that combined business and family.
"You got to have a full load to keep things going," he said.
Despite the bad news, the MTAA's Humberd said Allegiant wasn't picking on Topeka because other cities with larger airports nearby had the same fare problems.
Meanwhile, Squires said Allegiant's Wichita-Las Vegas leg, which has been very successful since its launch in February 2003, is now flown six days a week.
"We're doing very well in Wichita," she said. But Wichita doesn't have another major airport a 75-minute drive away.
Customers who have reservations with Allegiant for travel Aug. 3 and later will be contacted by an airline representative to reaccommodate their travel plans.
The Allegiant Travel Co. announced in May that it registered for public ownership, offering shares of common stock amounting to $100 million.
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