Supporters of the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program are proud of the program’s success. But looking at the statistics uncovers a troubling trend that is obscured by the facts used to promote the program: The number of flights available from Wichita is declining. Today, we learn that Frontier Airlines is quitting its Wichita service, so the number of flight options may decline farther. (Wichita Eagle, Frontier Airlines to end flights from Wichita to Denver.)
The program provides taxpayer-funded grants to airlines so that they will provide low-cost service to cities in Kansas. The thought is that by propping up a discount carrier, other airlines will be forced to reduce their fares. By far the largest consumer of these subsidies is Airtran Airways in Wichita. For this goal, the program has worked, probably. We have to say “probably” because we can never know what would have happened in the absence of this program. But it is quite likely that fares are at least somewhat lower than would they would be otherwise.
But lower fares is not the only measure of success. The number of available flights is a measure, too, and a very important one for many people.
The problem is that subsidy boosters state that the number of flights has increased. For example, on a page that is part of the Sedgwick County official website, the claim is made that the affordable airfares program “offers more flights to both east and west coasts.”
In the agenda packet for a meeting of the Regional Economic Area Partnership of South Central Kansas — that’s the body that administers the affordable airfares program — board members were presented this information: “In presenting its proposal Sedgwick County provided evidence documenting that low-fare air service to eastern and western U.S. destinations through Wichita Mid-Continent Airport had been successful in providing more air flight options, more competition for air travel, and affordable air fares for Kansas.”
Later that document describes selection criteria for deciding which airlines will receive grants. The first goal listed is “more air flight options,” which is further described as the number of scheduled, daily nonstop and one-stop flights.
Certainly enticing a new airline carrier to town by paying them a subsidy increases the number of flights that carrier will offer, as before the subsidy, they offered none. But the experience of Wichita shows that the affordable airfares program is causing an overall loss of flight options in Wichita.
It’s true that when the airline subsidy started, funded at first only by the City of Wichita, the number of flights departing from Wichita increased. That’s not remarkable. That was the stated goal of the program, and if we paid AirTran a subsidy and they didn’t provide flights, that would have been a problem.
But the history of flights before the subsidy program is not the only important measure, although supporters of the program like the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman make use of it when she recently wrote this about the program and an audit of it conducted by Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit: “Even so, the audit put the return on the state’s investment at $2.32-to-$1, cited 38 percent growth in passenger counts between 2000 and 2009, and said ‘fares have decreased, while the number of passengers and the number of available flights have increased.’”
Yes, the number of available flights increased upon the arrival of AirTran and the start of the subsidy payments. But the trend since 2005 — about the time the state got involved in the funding and the program matured — is not encouraging. As shown in the accompanying charts, that trend is continually on a downward trajectory. (The charts show two different sets of data for the number of departures from Wichita.)
The decline in the number of available flights is important, because for some travelers, particularly business travelers, the availability of a seat on an airplane at any price is more important than being able to book a cheap flight a month in advance.
People may disagree about the wisdom of the airline subsidy program. But we need to recognize that the availability of flights to and from Wichita is declining, and has been declining for a number of years.
We often hear of the unintended consequences of government intervention. This is such an example. Compounding the problem is the refusal of the program’s supporters — both within and outside of government — to recognize it, at least publicly.