Wichita — The city is launching a second effort to increase passenger traffic through Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.
But first, Wichita must stabilize the market for its existing discount carriers, some of which have cut back their service.
The first phase of the air service initiative, called "Fair Fares," helped bring discount carriers AirTran Airways, Frontier JetExpress and Allegiant Air to Wichita. Fair Fares II is designed to take air service "to the next level," said airport development director Steve Flesher.
Still, there are issues to be worked out.
AirTran has cut its service to Chicago and switched to smaller planes on its service to Atlanta since arriving in Wichita. Frontier, too, has made changes in its Wichita service, switching from jets to turboprops.
City officials plan to talk to AirTran about "what it's going to take to keep them here and expand their presence," Flesher said.
Suggestions vary as to the best way to expand service and increase the number of passengers. One, proposed by Mayor Carlos Mayans, would use state economic development funds from the lottery. That money could be used to help Kansas airports, Mayans said.
In Wichita, the money could be used to extend subsidies offered to AirTran by the city or to subsidize a certain number of seats on certain flights, he said.
Officials say broader efforts must be made to increase the number of passengers coming from the Wichita area; the larger "catchment" area, which includes two-thirds of Kansas and northern Oklahoma; and from around the country.
While specific plans are yet to be decided, some proposals include:
- Marketing and promoting the airport through advertising and speakers bureaus in the area.
- Helping other Kansas communities develop air service to bring passengers to Wichita. The initial focus will be on cities that already have commuter service, such as Salina, Hays, Great Bend, Garden City and Liberal.
- Forming alliances with businesses and tourism bureaus outside the state.
Bringing the right combination of service and fares into Wichita has the potential of tripling or quadrupling the market, Flesher said.
City leaders have long been working to reduce fares and add service, saying Wichita's air service -- and the high cost of fares -- has kept companies from doing business in the region.
"Air service is more than just a plane ride to Miami," Flesher said. "It's a component of economic development."
Eventually, the goal is to have enough traffic for AirTran to reinstate service to Chicago, for Frontier to reinstate jet service and for airlines to add nonstop service to Washington D.C., Orlando and New York, Flesher said.
He also wants the market to have enough growth to serve as a catalyst to "support recruiting efforts to Southwest Airlines."
While other airports have experienced passenger declines in a slumping economy, the arrival of AirTran, Allegiant and Frontier JetExpress has boosted traffic in Wichita.
"Air service today is better, more cost effective and more responsive, and our economic development and airport leadership are willing to roll up their sleeves and develop the air service market," Flesher said.