Wichita: Airfares are State Priority

Wichita area government and business leaders are pressing the state for $5 million a year to expand low-cost air service at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

They contend that much of the state, and state government itself, benefits from lower fares and a sharp increase in business and leisure flyers using Mid-Continent.

"This is a state issue, economic development," Mayor Carlos Mayans said. "It behooves the state to help us with this initiative."

The proposal is still being developed, but local officials intend to ask the state to pay for 80 percent of the $6.25 million annual subsidy plan, or $5 million a year for the next five years. Local governments would contribute $1.25 million each year.

By nearly doubling the amount of current subsidies, they hope to obtain low-cost fares to more destinations.

Since AirTran Airways began low-cost flights in 2002, the burden of subsidizing the service has fallen on the city. It spent $2.5 million this year. Sedgwick County added $1 million. Businesses guaranteed $700,000 in ticket purchases this year.

Local leaders met recently in Wichita with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Ideally, Mayans said, she would include the subsidy funding in her budget proposal in January.

But Sebelius was noncommittal last week.

"What I asked at the time was, what specifically were they requesting and what was it going to do, and they're getting back to me," she said. "Right now, the ball's in their court."

High air fares at Mid-Continent have long been cited as an impediment to business growth and recruitment.

Bryan Derreberry, president of the Wichita chamber, said state officials should view affordable air service in the same way as highways, bridges and rail service, all considered essential to doing business.

"We'd love to see the governor and state Legislature embrace this need," he said.

In the past, Derreberry said, some businesses have cited high airfare costs as reasons for leaving the Wichita area or deciding not to locate operations here.

Low airfares are at or near the top of the political agendas of the city, the county and the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. Other south-central Kansas communities are expected to support the effort through the Regional Area Economic Partnership.

To date, about $9.5 million in subsidies have gone to AirTran, most of it from the city. Delta Airlines haschallenged the subsidies in a complaint filed with the Federal Aviation Administration. That complaint is still pending.

Since the AirTran subsidies began, according to city records, fares have dropped by 50 percent or more to Atlanta, St. Louis and Minneapolis-St. Paul and by 41 percent to Denver.

However, government and business leaders say lower fares are needed on more westbound routes.

Since the subsidies have been in place, air travel in and out of Mid-Continent has grown 24 percent, the records show. There has been a 7 percent drop in "leakage" of customers to airports in Kansas City (180 miles northeast), Oklahoma City (160 miles south) and Tulsa (140 miles southeast).

Tracking passengers by their home ZIP code, airport officials show Mid-Continent draws flyers from as far as Colby in northwest Kansas, Garden City in the southwest, Parsons in the southeast and Junction City in the northeast. It also draws passengers from Ponca City to Woodward in northern Oklahoma.

Sixty-six percent of passengers come from Sedgwick County.

Mid-Continent's far-reaching impact on commerce is why members of the Regional Economic Area Partnership intend to contribute to future subsidies, said executive officer Keith Lawing.

"The other cities and counties in the region are benefiting as well, and they realize that," he said. "They feel they need to make some kind of contribution."

Whatever they add would count toward the local government share in the coalition's proposal to the state. That, in turn, could lower Wichita's and Sedgwick County's contributions.

Payments from the partnership will be voluntary and probably based on population, Lawing said. The partnership includes 32 county and city governments in Sedgwick, Butler, Harvey, Cowley, Sumner and Reno counties.

Wichita legislators already have been approached about state funding.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Republican and vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said she will look for how the plan benefits the state.

"If it comes in revenue neutral, there's no reason not to do it," she said. She also wants to see credible evidence that the lower fares will help businesses grow in the area.

Rep. Jim Ward, the assistant Democratic leader in the House, said he sees "a lot of good things happening" as a result of three years of AirTran subsidies.

"It's a regional airport. I do see a benefit to not only south-central Kansas but to western Kansas," he said.

He hopes the plan's supporters can show that the lower fares can eventually become self-sustaining.

"At some point in time, it has to carry itself," he said.

Mayans first floated the state airport subsidy when he was serving in the House. His proposal would have earmarked some of the economic development funds generated by the Kansas Lottery to subsidize fares at Mid-Continent.

As mayor, he doesn't really care where the state finds the money.

"We just wanted the governor to have the opportunity to lead on this if she wants to," he said.

Wichita Eagle

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