The city of Wichita would probably have "no problem" subsidizing AirTran Airways if a separate airport authority were still running Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, a Federal Aviation Administration official said Monday.
But it was unclear Monday whether the Wichita City Council would be willing to give up the control it assumed when it took over the functions of the Wichita Airport Authority in 1999.
If the airport were run by an independent board, the FAA probably would have no opposition to the city's giving AirTran a subsidy, said Charles Erhard, manager of the airport compliance division at the FAA.
And if Wichita re-established the type of independent board it had in 1999, it would probably put an end to the current controversy between the city and the FAA over whether the AirTran subsidy constitutes unjust economic discrimination against competing carriers, he said.
"When we have an airport that's out of compliance, we want to bring them back into compliance," Erhard said. "Not punish them for some decision they made years ago."
The entity in control of the airport receives federal grant funds and must comply with grant language prohibiting discrimination against airlines.
Delta Air Lines, which flies the same Wichita-Atlanta route as AirTran, asked the FAA to examine the AirTran subsidy.
Last week, Erhard sent a letter to Wichita informing the city that the FAA staff believes the subsidy is discriminatory. The letter gave the city 30 days to tell the FAA how the city would remedy the problem.
The letter also dismissed Wichita's argument that the Airport Authority and City Council are separate entities.
Wichita has provided AirTran with $7 million in the last three years and was scheduled this week to set aside another $2.5 million to subsidize the airline's fourth year of service. Sedgwick County was scheduled this week to approve an additional $1 million for the airline subsidy.
Wichita has huge economic interests in continuing AirTran service and in staying on the good side of the FAA.
The subsidy program with AirTran, started in 2002, is credited with bringing low-fare service to Wichita and saving airline passengers about $85 million.
Since AirTran started serving Wichita, airfares have fallen 30 percent, and the number of passengers using the airport has increased 33 percent, the city reported to the FAA.
Also, the city is hoping that the FAA will provide a substantial part of the $150 million it will take to build a new terminal, which is currently in the planning stages.
On Monday, Mayor Carlos Mayans and council members Sue Schlapp, Bob Martz, Carl Brewer and Sharon Fearey did not return messages seeking comment.
Jim Skelton, who joined the council last week, said he's leaning toward re-establishing the Airport Authority as an independent body if it would mean the city could continue to subsidize AirTran service.
"It would seem reasonable," he said. "If that's what needs to be done, I would favor that."
He said he plans to ask that the subsidy vote scheduled for today be delayed until the May 3 meeting to give him time to take the issue to his district advisory board.
Council member Paul Gray said he thinks re-establishing the Airport Authority might be an overreaction.
"It's going to take a lot of thought to know if that's the right course of action," he said. "It seems like a long-term answer to a short-term problem. We're only looking at doing this (subsidy) one or two more years at most."
The letter to the city also put the county in a holding pattern. County commissioners were to have approved their share of the AirTran subsidy at their meeting Wednesday.
Asked what he would advise the commission to do, County Manager Bill Buchanan said: "I don't know. We'll just back up and see what happens."
Commission Chairman Dave Unruh said it's "exceedingly important" to keep the subsidy so AirTran service continues.
"If it is not in conformance to (FAA) regulations, we'll have to find a different way to do that," Unruh said. He said he would favor re-establishing an Airport Authority "if that's all it takes."
"Hopefully, they're hard at work (at City Hall) today figuring out how to fix it by their meeting tomorrow," Unruh said Monday.
Delta Air Lines officials plan to ask the City Council today for a share of the subsidy. Doug Blissit, Delta's vice president for network analysis, and Harold Bevis, vice president for public affairs, will be in town for the meeting.
"The FAA has said that these subsidies are illegal, and we're just saying either eliminate the program completely or offer it to everyone, including AirTran," Delta spokeswoman Benet Wilson said.
Delta is seeking "a level playing field" for operators in Wichita, Wilson said.
Delta has subsidy agreements of its own in place. Two weeks ago, the airport authority in Lansing, Mich., approved $1 million in subsidies for Delta to begin two daily flights to Atlanta, according to the Lansing State Journal. The airport authority board also gave the airline $100,000 for marketing the new service.
AirTran vice president for planning Kevin Healy said he was aware of the subsidy issue in Wichita.
"I'm confident that we'll continue with our agreement with the city," Healy said.