Kansas Firms: AirTran is Worth Every Penny Paid

Sullivan Higdon & Sink might not have opened its office in Washington, D.C., without lower fares at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. "If we were still paying $1,200 fares to go back and forth to D.C., that would have been a decision that would have been much tougher to make," said managing partner Sam Williams, who also is chairman of the Fair Fares campaign. That group helped bring low-cost carrier AirTran Airways to Wichita in 2002.

Business and city leaders say travelers have saved about $85 million because of AirTran's entry into the market that year.

The city has been subsidizing AirTran, most recently agreeing to pay the airline $2.5 million for a fourth year of service. The county, for the first time, will provide $1 million.

But because of allegations from Delta Air Lines of economic discrimination, the Federal Aviation Administration is challenging the city's support of AirTran.

Business leaders say the area can't afford to lose the discount carrier. The cost of air travel, they say, is one of the biggest issues impacting the area's economic development.

"For our long-term economic development, this is critical," Williams said. "When Pizza Hut, Rent-a-Center and Brite Voice all left, they cited the cost of traveling in and out of Wichita."

That's why the Wichita Area Chamber of Commerce and the Fair Fares committee have launched a campaign to raise $1 million to support a beefed-up frequent-flier program to help AirTran attract and retain loyal customers. The chamber is promoting the program, and the Fair Fares group would administer it.

The program would double frequent-flier miles three times a year -- when the campaign kicks off in June and during two slower travel periods.

The key is to get more businesspeople to support what brought airfares down, said Ted A. Vlamis, president of Pioneer Balloon.

"There's no question in my mind that if we lose AirTran, the airfare structure will go back to what it was prior to AirTran," he said. "I think that will have a significant effect on how business and what business is done in Wichita."

Williams doesn't think the FAA controversy will affect the chamber's ability to raise money for the frequent flier program. But he said potential donors will ask about it, and it will be the chamber's job to explain that the city is responding to the concern.

Another issue that has been raised is the city's control of the airport. Williams said he, like some other business leaders, doesn't yet have an opinion on whether the city should relinquish control of the airport and appoint an independent board.

"I think it's one of the issues to be addressed," he said. "Right now we don't know the pros and cons."

Nonetheless, Williams thinks there's a lot of support in the business community to retain AirTran and attract other low-cost carriers.

"My feeling is that the support goes very deep. It's a complicated issue so it takes lots of time to understand it," Williams said. "People in Wichita tend to be very deliberate in how we make decisions.

"I think the idea of government subsidies is not something anyone really gets excited about. But this is economic development dollars we're spending."

Vlamis, for one, said he doesn't consider the city's support of AirTran a subsidy.

"I think it's infrastructure investment," Vlamis said. "We don't argue about building new roads...."

Vlamis joked that his clients no longer grouse about high ticket prices to Wichita and said Pioneer plans to contribute to the frequent flier program.

Meanwhile, Pioneer employees travel AirTran whenever possible. And Vlamis has made it the airline of choice given certain conditions.

For example, employees should book on AirTran unless it costs $100 or more to fly AirTran than on another airline, or flying on the airline would result in an extra day of travel.

The Hayes Co. also will contribute to the frequent flier program.

The company, which makes lawn furniture and outdoor accessories, used to spend $800 to $900 a ticket to fly to Atlanta, where Home Depot is based.

"We do a tremendous amount of business with Home Depot," chief executive Steve Hayes said. "Our travel to Atlanta is at least monthly. Now the maximum we're spending is $300 on a ticket. That scenario would play itself out across any destination that we're currently being served by AirTran."

There are other benefits, too. Hayes remembers driving to Kansas City to fly.

"I hated it," he said. "It was a tremendous waste of time."

Steve Nikkel at Vulcan Chemicals said his company promised to spend at least $30,000 with AirTran its first year and spent much more. Still, the company saved more than $100,000 in airfares the first 12 months AirTran served Wichita, he said.

"They've made a big difference," he said.

Lyndon Wells, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Intrust Bank, said bank employees don't travel by air as much as some other businesses -- their travel is more regional -- but he still is watching the issue closely.

Wichita has "enjoyed some great economic growth over the last couple years in part because we've been able to get places," Wells said.