Kansas Airports Seek Separate Air Service

Mar. 30 -- Airport leaders Peter Van Kuren, Manhattan, and Tim Rogers, Salina, could talk in unison about goals for commercial air service in their respective towns.

Both would like bigger planes, more flights, better connections and reasonable fares to service markets that are much larger than they appear.

And both airport managers want it done without a federal subsidy, without a requirement that flights stop at each airport.

"It's not that we don't like Salina. It's just that for the quality of service, that's the best way to do it," said Van Kuren, the Manhattan Regional Airport director.

Rogers said both communities "share the same sentiment, that sharing connected flights between Salina and Manhattan is not good for either community."

Currently, both airports are served by Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group, doing business as U.S. Airways Express. Mesa is under an Essential Air Service contract with the U.S. Transportation Department to provide subsidized service to Salina and Manhattan through February 2008. The three, daily round-trip flights during the week -- one Saturday flight and two Sunday flights -- includes stops at both airports.

Salina and Manhattan both requested separate service, Van Kuren said.

The contract period began March 1, 2006.

"The DOT made the decision to combine the cities on one contract because they thought it would be cheaper for them," he said Rogers, executive director of the Salina Airport Authority, calls the federal program "minimal air service" that is lacking.

"Both airports serve markets with greater demand than is being met at the present time by Mesa and Air Midwest," he said.

Air Midwest, Wichita, is a subsidiary of Mesa.

"It takes a combination of frequency, schedule, timely hub connections, fares and larger aircraft to better meet the existing demand for air service," Rogers said.

Van Kuren said the EAS program is a big reason why Manhattan's region is under served.

"They're unable to provide the number of seats we need to meet the demands that we have at the airport," he said. "When you look at the two airports, there's nowhere near the number of seats that we need." Last year Manhattan boarded 10,500 people, and Salina counted 2,029 passengers.

In an analysis from Eugene, Ore., consultant Mark Sixel, the Salina market includes 255,000 true passengers. Rogers said one fourth of those, nearly 64,000 customers, is a reasonable goal, and enough to lure a regional air carrier to Salina.

The Sixel study is giving Salina a clearer picture of what is needed, Rogers said, among them a smooth transition from Salina to connecting flights at a hub airport.

"It's not good to get to a hub airport and sit for three or four hours," he said.

Kansas City International might not always be the hub of choice. The January survey of air travelers in the Salina area also marked Denver International as a "highly desirable hub," Rogers said.

Manhattan is somewhat behind Salina in developing market data for its area, which includes Junction City, Kansas State University, rapidly expanding Fort Riley and the Flint Hills region. But Van Kuren said the potential is substantially larger than 10,500 passengers a year.

The airport has hired consulting firm Mead & Hunt -- also from Eugene, Ore. -- to help improve service.

Once the Manhattan airport establishes its true market potential, Van Kuren said, the community will begin to woo airlines.

"When this DOT contract ends (in February), our hope is that we will have an airline willing to provide unsubsidized service to Manhattan to meet market demand," Van Kuren said.

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