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AirTran Subsidy Remarks

Following are remarks I am delivering to several groups, including the Wichita City Council, in April 2005.

AirTran Subsidy is Moving in Wrong Direction

We were persuaded to accept the AirTran subsidy in 2002 as a temporary measure, to allow AirTran to build a presence here, and that the subsidy would no longer be needed at some time. But now we see that the situation is moving in the opposite direction, as AirTran asks for even a larger subsidy.

Economic Impact Overstated

The argument that many Fair Fares supporters make is flawed. They are grossly — I would say even speciously — overstating the importance of the airport to our local economy.

As an example, Mr. Troy Carlson, then Chairman of Fair Fares, wrote a letter that was published on September 16, 2004 in the Wichita Eagle. In that letter he claimed $2.4 billion economic benefit from the Fair Fares program ($4.8 billion for the entire state). I was curious about how these figures were derived. Through correspondence With Mr. Steve Flesher, air service development director for the city of Wichita, I learned that the basis for them is a study by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University that estimates the economic impact of the airport at $1.6 billion annually. In this study, the salaries of the employees of Cessna and Bombardier, because these companies use the airport’s facilities, are counted as economic impact dollars that the airport is responsible for generating.

To me, this accounting doesn’t make sense on several levels. For one thing, if we count the economic impact of the income of these employees as belonging to the airport, what then do we say about the economic impact of Cessna and Bombardier? We would have to count it as very little, because the impact of their employees’ earnings has been assigned to the airport.

Or suppose that Cessna tires of being on the west side of town, so it moves east and starts using Jabara Airport. Would Cessna’s economic impact on Sedgwick County be any different? I think it wouldn’t. But its impact on the Wichita airport would now be zero. Similar reasoning would apply if Cessna built its own runway.

Or it may be that someday Cessna or Bombardier will ask Sedgwick County for some type of economic subsidy, and they will use these same economic impact dollars in their justification. But these dollars will have already been used, as they were attributed to the airport.

It is a convenient circumstance that these two manufacturers happen to be located near the airport. To credit the airport with the economic impact of these companies — as though the airport was involved in the actual manufacture of airplanes instead of providing an incidental (but important) service — is to grossly overstate the airport’s role and its economic importance.

To its credit, the WSU CEDBR study does provide some figures with the manufacturing employees excluded. The impact without the manufacturing employees included is estimated at $183 million, or about 11 percent of the $1.6 billion claimed earlier.

Structural Changes in Airfares

In the past few months, most American airlines have simplified their fare structures. Notably they have dramatically cut last-minute walk-up fares, which are the type of high fares that AirTran was supposed to provide an alternative to. In light of these structural changes in airfares, we do not know what would happen to airfares in Wichita if AirTran left.

Fares to the West May Hold Clue

Since AirTran doesn’t fly to the west, it may be that looking at westbound fares could give us a clue as to what eastbound fares would be in AirTran’s absence. I took three eastern cities (all served by AirTran) and three western cities and compared airfares for a Tuesday through Thursday trip booked two days in advance. The westbound tickets averaged $74 higher than eastbound — an increase, but not anywhere near the magnitude that subsidy supporters claim fares would rise by if AirTran leaves. I would welcome someone with more experience than me researching this.

Subsidies Distort Markets

The subsidy distorts the market process through which individuals and businesses decide how to most productively allocate capital.

Subsidies Create Dependence on Government

When government pays a subsidy to one company or industry, it creates an environment where others expect a subsidy, too. For example, we shouldn’t expect any other airline to start service to Wichita unless they receive a subsidy like AirTran does.

Companies in other industries see local government as a source of subsidy, so they ask for subsidies to locate to Wichita. Even local established companies threaten to leave Wichita unless they receive subsidies. This creates an environment where, year after year, local governments make investment decisions for us instead of relying on the collective judgment of free market allocation of resources. This corporate welfare — which is what the AirTran subsidy is, plain and simple — is very harmful.

Other Articles

“The Downside of Being the Air Cap” by Harry R. Clements at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/the-downside-of-being-the-air-cap/. Mr. Clements’s article makes a striking conclusion as to why airfares in Wichita were so high.
“Stretching Figures Strains Credibility” at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-news-media/stretching-figures-strains-credibility/. This article contains a link to the WSU CEDBR study.
“Letter to County Commissioners Regarding AirTran Subsidy” at wichitaliberty.org/sedgwick-county-government/letter-to-county-commissioners-regarding-airtran-subsidy/
“End Corporate Welfare, Starting with Industrial Revenue Bonds” at wichitaliberty.org/role-of-government/end-corporate-welfare-starting-with-industrial-revenue-bonds/

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