Wichita Blasts FAA's Logic

The city of Wichita would no more subsidize Delta Air Lines than a shepherd would feed a wolf "so that the wolf can get bigger and stronger and slaughter more sheep," the city said in a letter Monday to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The six-page letter blasts the FAA's preliminary finding that giving AirTran Airways millions in subsidies discriminates against other airlines serving the community.

The city "totally disagrees," it says in the letter, signed by New York lawyer Arthur Berg, who represents the city. The letter was released Monday, the deadline the FAA had given Wichita to respond.

Among other arguments, the letter says that the city shouldn't have to subsidize Delta, which had overcharged Wichita fliers for years.

That would only make the problem worse, giving Delta money to drive AirTran out of Wichita and giving Delta a monopoly again.

"The FAA's position that the city must also subsidize Delta is like telling the shepherd that he must feed the wolf so that the wolf can get bigger and stronger and slaughter more sheep," the letter says.

Calls made late in the day to Delta officials were not returned. Delta, which has asked for the same subsidy AirTran receives, filed the discrimination complaint with the FAA.

FAA officials do not have a response yet, spokeswoman Marcia Alexander-Adams said.

"There is no set time to review the response, but it will be done as quickly as possible," she said in a statement.

If Wichita does not resolve the dispute, it could lose FAA grant money for Mid-Continent Airport.

The FAA asked the city how it will remedy the situation after Delta Air Lines claimed the city was engaging in economic discrimination by providing a subsidy to AirTran only. To date, the city has given AirTran $7 million in an effort to reduce airfares.

Earlier this month, the city approved another $2.5 million to AirTran for a fourth year of service. Sedgwick County, for the first time, is adding $1 million.

In its letter, the city also said the FAA did not have jurisdiction over it because it was acting as the governing body of the city when it approved AirTran's subsidy last year.

The letter says that "the FAA should reverse its position on this matter and conclude that it has no jurisdiction over the spending of the city of Wichita funds for legitimate municipal purposes."

It also cites an FAA decision last fall regarding the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority in Florida, in which the FAA apparently said that governments can spend non-airport funds on subsidies.

In Wichita, the city took control of Mid-Continent Airport from the Wichita Airport Authority in 1999. The City Council now serves as the airport authority, setting policy and spending money on the airport.

The letter states that serving as the airport board cannot take away from the city's right to "provide for the general welfare of the community."

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf also said that such subsidies are appropriate economic tools and that they have saved area travelers $85 million by forcing other carriers to offer lower fares to remain competitive.

"It's definitely a benefit to the city that we have the right to do," he said.

The FAA makes grants to airports for development projects. To receive the funds, airports must agree to a variety of conditions, including an assurance that they won't discriminate among airlines.

One of the conditions, spelled out in the FAA's Grant Assurance 22, is that the grant recipient not engage in "economic discrimination." In a letter to the city dated April 6, the FAA said that treating Delta and AirTran differently could constitute a violation of that grant assurance.

The city argued in its letter, however, that only "unjust discrimination" is restricted. The city says its subsidy is not unjust.

The city's distinction between AirTran --"a new entrant low fare carrier" -- and Delta --"a legacy carrier" -- is also fair, the letter says.