Milwaukee, nonstop

July 13, 2007

Jul. 13--Wichita could get nonstop service to Milwaukee if AirTran wins its fight to buy Midwest Airlines. That is part of a $6.5 million contract with AirTran approved this week by Sedgwick County commissioners.

The commissioners approved the money Wednesday to underwrite losses on AirTran routes from Wichita to Atlanta, County Manager Bill Buchanan said.

The new contract is $500,000 less than AirTran's previous contract.

Local officials are also in negotiations with Frontier Airlines about revenue guarantees for the carrier. Frontier announced this month that it will begin service from Wichita to Denver in October.

An amount has not been agreed upon, Buchanan said.

"We're still talking," Buchanan said. "We have $7 million to work with. AirTran is getting $6.5 million."

The money for AirTran is needed to ensure low fares to the east, officials said.

In exchange, AirTran agrees to operate a minimum of three round-trip flights a day from Wichita to Atlanta using Boeing 717 jets.

If AirTran acquires Midwest Airlines, its new service to Milwaukee would be Wichita's only service there.

AirTran, based in Orlando, made an offer for the Milwaukee-based low-fare carrier in December. The carrier would merge the two airlines and combine operations.

It is too early to know how many flights a day would go to Milwaukee, said AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver.

Of the $7 million in revenue guarantees available to airlines, the state contributes $5 million, and the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County give $1 million each. The county is responsible for the funds.

Of that amount, AirTran will receive $4.88 million from the state and $810,000 each from the city and from the county, Buchanan said.

"Wichita is an important market for us," Graham-Weaver said. "We continue to see the route building."

The 12-month agreement with AirTran began July 1.

AirTran began service in Wichita in 2002 and since then airfares to the east decreased dramatically, officials note.

In 2006, 384,000 passengers flew between Wichita and the 13 eastern cities served by AirTran that are part of the top 25 most popular destinations from Wichita, according to the county's agenda.

Without AirTran's reduced fares, those passengers would have paid $27 million more in air fare, officials said.

Without the revenue guarantees to offset losses, "it is probable that AirTran would exit this market," county officials said. With its exit, they said, competing airlines would immediately raise fares.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or []

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