(This is a longer version of my opinion piece that appeared in The Wichita Eagle last week.)
From the beginning, we in the Wichita area have been told each year that the AirTran subsidy was intended as a temporary measure, that soon AirTran would be able to stand on its own, and there will be no need to continue the subsidy. Mayor Mayans said as much last year, and so did City Manager Kolb this year.
But State Senator Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, on a recent television program, may have made a revealing slip when she referred to the AirTran subsidy as a “pilot program.” Now that the subsidy appears to be a permanent requirement, funded locally and perhaps statewide, we should ask ourselves if this subsidy is in our best interests.
The benefits of the subsidy are regularly overstated — and sometimes by huge amounts. In 2004, the Chairman of Fair Fares claimed that the Fair Fares program was worth $4.8 billion in economic benefit to the state. No reasonable analysis could make a conclusion that the benefit is as large as this.
Last year, the present Chairman of Fair Fares spoke before the Wichita City Council and equated what Wichita is doing to pricing in the airline industry with the role that Kansas played in the years before the Civil War. It hardly seems worth noting that one struggle was against the immoral institution of slavery; the other is a taxpayer-funded effort to override the natural workings of free markets.
Yes, it is undeniable. Low airfares are preferred over high airfares, and it is probably true that airfares are lower than what they would be without the subsidy. But the airline industry is changing. As an example, carriers tell us they have eliminated or reduced the very high fares for walkup ticket purchases. We simply do not know what airfares would be in Wichita if there had not been the subsidy, so any estimate of how much has been saved is merely a guess.
The harm the subsidy causes reveals itself in several ways. We may have less air service in Wichita due to the subsidy. Last year Delta canceled seven important daily flights. Was this in retaliation for Wichita’s decision to not subsidize Delta, as some claim? Or was it the law of supply and demand expressing itself: that when the price of something is lowered (lowering prices is the desired effect of the subsidy), less is supplied. There are fewer daily flights supplied to and from Wichita, from 56 last year to 42 today. As the subsidy lowers the price that airlines may charge for tickets but doesn’t do anything to reduce the costs of providing service, we should not be surprised to see more reductions in service.
Backers of the subsidy claim it is necessary to keep businesses from leaving and to attract new businesses to our area. We should consider the converse: have businesses considered Wichita, and seeing a meddlesome local government, one that picks and chooses winners and losers, decided not to locate here?
Local lawmakers abandon their principles to back the subsidy. Last year a Sedgwick County Commissioner assured me that he was a “free market” thinker, but was backing the subsidy nonetheless. Local business leaders, some who consider themselves believers in free markets, back the subsidy and have even formed private fundraising efforts to augment the subsidy.
Consider this: if a subsidy is good for economic development, why shouldn’t we try the subsidy approach with other businesses? If we feel that, say, advertising rates in Wichita are too high, why doesn’t the city select one local television station and subsidize its operations, thereby compelling other stations to match the subsidized price? Or to help people with something that really hits home, why not grant a subsidy to one chain of grocery stores so that other stores have to lower their prices? Or in the case of a monopoly such as a local daily newspaper, why doesn’t the city or county fund a startup to supply competition? I think most Wichitans would consider these measures extreme and contrary to fairness. I find it difficult, though, to differentiate these actions from the AirTran subsidy.
Whether to continue funding the AirTran subsidy is a bright line that we can choose to cross or not. On one side we see low airfares, and those airfares are highly visible. What we may not see as easily is the cost of a permanent expansion of government, government that intrudes increasingly on our lives and liberties. We also may not notice the loss of valuable information that prices in a free market supply, and without those price cues, we will not recognize the misallocation of capital and resources that follows.
On the other side of the line is the harsh realization that Wichita has factors such as low population that work against low airfares. On this side, however, we will find liberty and free markets. You will find me on this side, lonely though it is.