FAA: AirTran Wichita Subsidy is 'Unjust'

The Federal Aviation Administration has called Wichita's subsidies to AirTran Airways "unjust economic discrimination" against another airline and given the city 30 days to say how it will remedy the situation.

"You (Wichita) provide minutes from the Aug. 10 City Council meeting purporting to show a separate City Council agenda and airport agenda," the FAA letter said. "Both agendas, however, are included under the broad title of 'City Council proceedings.'

"In addition, a notice immediately following the heading for the airport agenda states, 'The City Council is meeting as the governing body of the airport.' In our view, this statement supports our contention that the City Council is the governing body of the airport."

Until 1999, the Airport Authority was mostly independent of city government.

Although the city owns the airport, the authority had its own board and broad decision-making powers.

The board supervised the airport director, and he signed grant agreements for the airport.

But the council disbanded the authority and took control of the airport after authority members signaled they planned to fire then-airport director Bailis Bell. Council members also were dissatisfied with the airport board's efforts to find ways to reduce airfares.

Bell remained in the job another five years, until reaching his mandatory retirement date last year.

Former Mayor Bob Knight led the efforts to bring AirTran to town and to bring the airport under tight City Hall control.

Before AirTran came to Wichita, he said, he heard constant complaints from residents, and businesses were moving out of the city, because of the high cost of flying in and out.

He said AirTran's presence has saved residents and businesses tens of millions of dollars.

And, he added, if he were still mayor, he'd do whatever he could to protect the AirTran deal.

If restoring independent control of the airport would satisfy the FAA, "That's what I would do in a heartbeat," he said.

Kolb said he hasn't given much thought about changing the situation.

"I haven't seen where the current system is broken," he said. "There are advantages for an authority, and there's advantages to keeping it the way it is."

Bob Martz, the only council member in office when the Airport Authority board was disbanded, said he would lean toward keeping things the way they are for now.

"I don't see any reason to change it back," he said.

When dealing with AirTran subsidies, "we always ask our legal staff whether we're doing it right," Martz said. "The last time we had a discussion on it, I was told it was OK."

Boyd Group airport consultant Mike Boyd said the point of the city subsidies was not to get service to Atlanta. It was to lower fares.

"This is called competition," Boyd said. "It's hands-off, bare-knuckles competition."

In the grand scheme of things, he added, "this is really positive news that the airlines want to fight over Wichita."

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