The Wichita Eagle reports that Mayor Carl Brewer and City Manager George Kolb received free upgrades to business class seats on a recent AirTran flight. The two are indignant over being questioned about the propriety of accepting the gift. The Eagle described Kolb as "peeved." The Mayor was moved to write a letter to the Eagle describing its reporting as a "cheap shot" with its "lapse in basic journalistic standards" a risk to "harming reputations."
The AirTran station manager who granted the free upgrade was quoted as saying "Do I expect something from those people? No!"
Wichita civic and business leaders who also traveled on the flight were bothered by the incident, according to Eagle reporting.
Who's right in this story? The answer is: everyone!
The Eagle is right to report this story. It happened; therefore it's news.
The AirTran station manager was correct in giving the upgrades to the politicians. She clearly knows who butters her bread. I presume she was being discreet when she denied expecting something from those people -- something other than the up to $7 million annual subsidy provided by the City, Sedgwick County, and the State of Kansas, that is.
The Wichita civic and business leaders are right to be miffed, as they are the ones who buy a lot of AirTran tickets, and if anyone deserves to receive a free upgrade, it's them.
The two politicians are right to be peeved about the reporting of the appearance of a conflict of interest. That's because there is a conflict of interest, since the city and other local governments give up to $7 million of taxpayer money each year to AirTran. Any relations between the airline and these governments must be analyzed in the light of the subsidy. This is symptomatic of the problems that arise when government intervenes in areas properly left to markets.
When I receive the occasional free upgrade to first class, I say "Thank you, American Airlines!" and accept it gladly, with clean conscience, knowing that I have done nothing wrong. The fact that Mayor Carl Brewer and City Manager George Kolb weren't able to do this, coupled with how their acceptance of a business courtesy caused such a stir, tells us a great deal about the problems of government interventionism.