AirTran to Add Another Wichita, Kansas Flight

Low-cost carrier AirTran Airways plans to add a third daily flight to Atlanta from Wichita beginning June 7.

The additional flight is part of a larger plan outlined Thursday by city, county, chamber and Fair Fares officials to target business customers, increase ridership on the carrier and keep AirTran in Wichita.

The plan includes doubling frequent-flier miles for a limited time for businesses using AirTran and asking businesses to donate about $1 million to fund the plan.

Mayor Carlos Mayans has recommended that the city support AirTran with $2.5 million in revenue guarantees when the city's current contract with the carrier expires May 7.

And for the first time, the county may also contribute. Sedgwick County Commission chairman Dave Unruh said he supports a plan for the county to give AirTran $1 million in guarantees on top of the city's support.

The goal is to support AirTran and grow the market enough for the carrier to make money.

"To keep our low-cost carrier here, we have to do something different," said Fair Fares chairman Sam Williams.

Despite subsidies, AirTran continues to lose money on its Wichita service, officials said.

"Airlines cannot afford to fly unprofitable routes anymore," said Dean Headley, a Wichita State University associate professor of marketing, who co-writes and researches an annual airline quality rating report.

Airlines must put their airplanes where they can make the most money, he said. Delta Air Lines, for example, recently dropped more than 200 flights from Dallas, Headley said.

AirTran did not return calls for comment on Thursday.

Officials kicked off a campaign Thursday with face-to-face interviews with the news media. The group, which included Williams and Bryan Derreberry, president of the Wichita Area Chamber of Commerce, hopes the additional publicity will emphasize to businesses the importance of supporting AirTran.

The group will begin one-on-one meetings with businesses -- starting with companies that signed on to the original travel bank when the city was recruiting AirTran -- and with members of the chamber, Williams said.

"We've got to shift behavior," Williams said. "We've got to get people to try our flavor ice cream."

Business travel is a key part of a carrier's success in a market because business travelers tend to fly more frequently with shorter advance notices, paying a higher price for their tickets.

A central part of the plan to boost ridership is designed around AirTran's frequent flier program for businesses, said Dave Wood, vice president for economic development at the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

Businesses who sign up for AirTran's frequent-flier program will earn double credits for flights taken, potentially during a 60-day period starting June 7, Wood said. Double credits also could be offered during slower travel periods.

The double frequent-flier miles are available for businesses who sign up for AirTran's A2B corporate travel program, he said. Businesses can enroll in the program on AirTran's Web site.

The hope is that the companies will become accustomed to flying AirTran and develop brand loyalty. The accumulation of frequent-flier miles will help encourage that use, they said.

Attractive fares are a key factor in a business' decision to expand or move here, officials said. If AirTran leaves Wichita, officials estimate that walk-up fares would jump by about $700 per ticket.

Some local businesses have told economic development officials in Wichita that without reasonable fares, they could leave the city. And it would hurt economic development efforts.

About 1,500 passengers per day fly out of Wichita headed for destinations AirTran serves, said Wood, the economic development official. About half of them are business travelers.

If the campaign recruits one out of five of those business travelers to fly AirTran, the campaign "will be an overwhelming success," Wood said.

Since AirTran began service at Mid-Continent in May 2002, other airlines have lowered fares to compete. As a result, the number of passengers using the airport has dramatically increased.

But AirTran is not getting its share of the market, Williams said.

Last year, 110,967 passengers flew AirTran from Wichita. That's down from 128,682 who used AirTran in 2003.

The airline industry has struggled in recent years and only three U.S. carriers made money last year -- Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and AirTran, officials pointed out.

Should AirTran pull out of Wichita, it would be difficult to recruit another discount carrier, they said. Southwest's plan is to expand business in cities much larger than Wichita, while JetBlue primarily serves the East Coast.

AirTran, in fact, is no longer looking at cities the size of Wichita when it starts up new service.

Wichita has gotten a tremendous return on its investment in AirTran thus far, said Headley, the WSU professor.

"Overall, this is the best return on tax dollars spent in a long, long time," he said.

The city offered AirTran $4.5 million in revenue guarantees for its first two years in Wichita to underwrite potential losses. It offered another $2.5 million for its third year of business.

"Everybody has got to do the right stuff to make the whole thing work -- the city, county, business leaders," Headley said. "They all have to do their piece."

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