Remarks to Wichita City Council Regarding the AirTran Subsidy on July 11, 2006

Mr. Mayor, Members of the City Council:

You may recall that I have spoken to this body in years past expressing my opposition to the AirTran subsidy. At that time we were told that the subsidy was intended to be a short-tem measure. Today, four years after the start of the subsidy, with state funding planned for the next five years, it looks as though it is a permanent fixture.

Supporters of the subsidy have made a variety of claims in its support: that the subsidy and the accompanying Fair Fares program are responsible for $4.8 billion in economic impact, that being a pioneer in subsidizing airlines is equivalent to the role that Kansas played in the years immediately prior to the Civil War, and that we would have a mass exodus of companies leaving Wichita if the subsidy were to end.

I believe there is no doubt that fares are lower than what they would be if not for the subsidy. That points to the subsidy’s true achievement: government-imposed price controls. Its effect is to force many airlines to price their Wichita fares lower than they would otherwise. If it didn’t do that, there would be no reason to continue the subsidy.

Economists tell us — and human behavior confirms — that when the price of any good is held lower than it would be in a free market, the result is a reduction in the quantity supplied.

We see this happening. Earlier this year the Wichita Eagle reported that there are fewer daily flights supplied to and from Wichita, from 56 last year to 42 at the time of the article. It has been explained that the financial woes of Delta and NWA are to blame for this reduction. This is demonstrably false, as NWA recently added a daily flight to Wichita, and both airlines have added (and dropped) flights on many routes while in bankruptcy. Furthermore, even though in bankruptcy, theses airlines still desire to operate as profitably as possible.

Now we learn that the legacy airlines — those established, older airlines that take pride in their comprehensive nationwide networks of routes — are revising their strategies. A Wall Street Journal article from earlier this year (“Major Airlines Fuel a Recovery By Grounding Unprofitable Flights” published on June 5, 2006) tells us that the legacy airlines are beginning to look at the profitability of each route and flight. They are not as interested as they have been in providing flights just for the sake of having a complete nationwide network.

When we couple this change in airline strategy with our local price controls, I believe that we in Wichita are in danger of losing more service from the legacy airlines. If AirTran — a new-generation airline with low labor costs — can’t earn a profit on its Wichita route at the fares it charges, how can the legacy airlines be expected to do so? And if they can’t earn a profit on a flight to or from Wichita, and if they are beginning to scrutinize the profitability of each flight, can we expect them to continue providing service in Wichita?

No government has ever been able to successfully impose price controls without the people suffering harmful consequences. As economist Thomas Sowell wrote in a 2005 column:

Prices are perhaps the most misunderstood thing in economics. Whenever prices are “too high” — whether these are prices of medicines or of gasoline or all sorts of other things — many people think the answer is for the government to force those prices down.

It so happens there is a history of price controls and their consequences in countries around the world, going back literally thousands of years. But most people who advocate price controls are as unaware of, and uninterested in, that history as I was in the law of gravity.

Prices are not just arbitrary numbers plucked out of the air or numbers dependent on whether sellers are “greedy” or not. In the competition of the marketplace, prices are signals that convey underlying realities about relative scarcities and relative costs of production.

Those underlying realities are not changed in the slightest by price controls. You might as well try to deal with someone’s fever by putting the thermometer in cold water to lower the reading.

This is my fear, that someday I will open the newspaper and learn that American, United, Delta, Northwest, or Continental has reduced or even ceased service to and from Wichita. That day, when it becomes difficult to travel to or from Wichita at any price, that is the day we will feel the harm the subsidy causes.

On a personal level, my job as software engineer requires me to make from ten to twenty airline trips each year. Some of the places I travel to — Jackson, Mississippi and Lexington, Kentucky, for example — are not served by AirTran. If I am not able to travel there, no matter what the price, I will either have to find a different job or move from Wichita.

Mr. Mayor and Council Members, I urge you to reconsider your support of the AirTran subsidy. Even though the legislature and governor have agreed to pay for most of the subsidy, I believe the subsidy is not in our long-term interest. We need to let the price system, operating in a free market, do its job in guiding the allocation of scarce resources for both producers and consumers. The result may be more expensive fares. The alternative, which is the very real possibility of greatly reduced service to and from Wichita, is much more harmful.

Other Voice For Liberty in Wichita articles on this topic:

The AirTran Subsidy and its Unseen Effects
As Expected, Price Controls Harm Wichita Travelers
AirTran Subsidy Is Harmful
Wichita City Council Meeting, April 19, 2005
Wichita Eagle Says “AirTran Subsidies Foster Competition”
AirTran Subsidy Remarks
The Downside of Being the Air Cap by Harry R. Clements. This article makes a striking conclusion as to why airfares in Wichita were so high.
Letter to County Commissioners Regarding AirTran Subsidy
Open Letter to Wichita City Council Regarding AirTran Subsidy
Stretching Figures Strains Credibility


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