Sunday’s Wichita Eagle carried a story featuring local elected officials’ reaction to the possibility that Southwest Airlines would start service to Wichita. (City, county officials cautiously weigh subsidy for Southwest Airlines, May 30, 2010)
A source of controversy is over the payments of public funds that are thought to be necessary to acquire the service. The Eagle article quotes an unnamed source as saying it would take about $3 million in public funds to “get the service up and running.” It is not disclosed whether this is a one-time requirement, or if this is $3 million per year for some specific period, or perhaps forever.
Wichitans may want to remember that the subsidy paid to AirTran started small and was promoted as a temporary measure until the airline could establish itself in Wichita. The program, however, has grown to a combined $7 million annual payment from the state, county, and city. It seems unlikely that this number will ever drop.
At one time Wichita was a city known for its entrepreneurs. But recently the New York Times noted that Wichita is known as a “pioneer in the business of paying airlines to continue service.”
An interesting tidbit in the Eagle story is Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp making a distinction between a “subsidy” and an “incentive.” What we offer to Southwest would be an incentive, not a subsidy, she said.
The overall tone of the article is that Wichita City Council Members and Sedgwick County Commissioners are making a show of concern, wanting to be “realistic,” desiring more details and something “reasonable and feasible.”
Despite this show of concern and prudence, if this matter comes before these bodies, I’ll be surprised if even one member votes against it.
One thing this article did not mention is that Charleston, South Carolina was able to lure Southwest without having to pay a subsidy.
By way of comparison, the Wichita metropolitan area population is 612,683 (2009 estimate), while the Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville, metropolitan area populations is 659,191. In 2008, there were 780,756 enplanements at the Wichita airport, while there were 1,174,667 at the Charleston airport.
According to reports, the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates a $139 million economic impact with the arrival of Southwest. An economic impact analysis has been prepared for the City of Wichita, but Wichita officials will not release it, citing an exception in the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA).