Fair Fares: Worth the cost?

WICHITA, Kansas -- Each year, funding for the Kansas Affordable Air Fares Program comes from your tax dollars.FairFares-6_5_Million

It's split up between the city, county and state, with the state supplying $4.75 million and Sedgwick County and the City of Wichita each contributing $875,000.

That totals $6.5 million dollars of your tax dollars each year.

That money is a subsidy for Southwest to help them build their passenger numbers out of Wichita.

Is it worth your money?

"If we could in fact indeed land southwest we knew that would bring tremendous measurable economic benefit because the other large carriers would adapt their prices to what southwest set in Wichita," explains Lynn Nichols.

As the chairman of Yingling Aviation, Lynn Nichols was one of the people on a committee of city, county and state leaders asked by Mayor Brewer to aggressively pursue bringing Southwest Airlines to Wichita.

"We really wanted to convince them to come to Wichita, we felt the market was right and we tried to show as much horsepower as we could in the meeting."

Low-fare air carriers like Air-Tran, Frontier, Allegiant or Southwest Airlines traditionally have a significant impact on an airport's average air fares.

For example, when Air-Tran left Wichita, fares to Atlanta jumped 50 percent.

Comparing the fares

KSN searched direct air fares from Wichita to four different destinations and compared those results to the fares at three similarly sized airports, as well as Kansas City and Oklahoma City.

We searched round trip tickets on December 12th for tickets departing January 13th and returning January 20th and searched both CheapTickets.com and Southwest.com, since Southwest tickets are only available from their specific website.

For example, on cheaptickets.com, to fly to Chicago-Midway from Tulsa costs $243.20; from Wichita - $191.20; from the Quad Cities - $386.40; and from Des Moines - $171.20.

Now add a search for airfares on Southwest.com and we found a roundtrip flight from Tulsa to Chicago-Midway is $272.60; from Wichita it's $180.00; and from Des Moines it's $154.20.

Then we wanted to check and see if we could find a cheaper flight out of Oklahoma City or Kansas City.

We found a flight from Oklahoma City to Chicago-Midway is $243.20 and from Kansas City it's $163.20.

The price out of Kansas City is a little cheaper on the surface, but figure in a $7.00 a day parking fee and the $25.00 in gas it will cost to get there and the price difference amounts to this -- $237.20 out of Kansas City and $292.20 out of Oklahoma City.

Not even figuring in what your time is worth, the fares out of Wichita come in at the least expensive.

 

Infographic: The Real Cost of Flights

Here's another example; flights to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Again, direct round trip flights departing January 13th and returning January 20th - looked up on December 12th.

On CheapTickets.com a flight from Tulsa to Atlanta - $334.20; from Wichita to Atlanta - $267.20; from the Quad Cities it's $304.20 and from Des Moines you're looking at a cost of $344.20.

Figure in airfares listed on Southwest.com and you get $311 from Tulsa to Atlanta; $260 out of Wichita; and $312 to Atlanta from Des Moines.

If you were to head out of town to try and save some money, a trip to Oklahoma City for a flight to Atlanta will run you $242.20 and a flight out of Kansas City is $214.20.

Figure in that pesky gas and parking and your totals sit at $291.20 from Oklahoma City and $288.20 from Kansas City.

Benefit to taxpayers?

"It has saved passengers using the Wichita airport in excess of $100,000,000.00 a year in fare savings as to the fares they would have paid for the same flights before the program was started," says Chris Chronis.

Download Report
View 2014 Report

Chris Chronis is the Chief Financial Officer for Sedgwick County.

"You can see where that $100-million in savings comes from in the Regional Economic Area Partnership's annual report to the Kansas Department of Commerce detailing the 2014 results of the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program," said Chronis.

DOCUMENT | 2014 Annual Report to the Kansas Department of Commerce

The savings Chronis mentions are great news if you use Wichita’s Dwight D Eisenhower Airport when you travel.

But what if you're a taxpayer who doesn't fly?

Just how much does that $6 million cost you?

Chris Chronis, Sedgwick County
Chris Chronis, Sedgwick County

We started out by dividing that total amount among the taxpayers in Wichita, Sedgwick County and the state of Kansas but ran into some issues getting an accurate amount.

"It's a little tricky to say just who is a taxpayer?" asks Chronis. "My wife and I, for example, jointly own our home and pay taxes on it. Are we one taxpayer or are we two? We also own three vehicles and we pay taxes on those three vehicles. Is that 3 more taxpayers because that's three tax bills? Or are we still just a single taxpayer because it's a single household paying taxes?"

Instead, Chronis says the benefit is better measured in savings to travelers out of the airport as well as the economic impact those travelers have on our economy.

But there are also other places you can see a benefit.

In November the NCAA announced it would bring rounds one and two of the NCAA Tourney to Wichita in 2018, bringing an estimated $10 million impact.

Lynn Nichols, Yingling Aviation
Lynn Nichols, Yingling Aviation

Nichols explains, "The criteria they used in order to select Wichita, one of the criteria was cost of getting to Wichita. And Southwest Airlines played a big part in that because their fares are very competitive and in many cases lower than all the other major carriers."

When you look around airport property, there's more new development.

A brand new hotel just built and another in the plans to go up just north and west of the airport post office.

"I think whenever you have low cost of airfare and ways to get to Wichita to transact business and commerce, the more activity you're going to generate," says Nichols.

Then there's the effect felt when a couple of company headquarters moved their offices from Wichita to other cities, like Pizza Hut back in 1995.

"So there's a loss of 750-some jobs and right behind that was Rent-A-Center who relocated their headquarters to Dallas as well," remembers Nichols.

DOCUMENT | Feb 2013, An Evaluation of the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program

View 2013 report
View Feb 2013 report

But after Southwest entered the Wichita market and lowered overall airfares, Nichols now says, "I haven't heard businesses saying that our airfares are high and that it's a reason to relocate their business."

Nichols says the Kansas Affordable Airfare deal with Southwest Airlines provides three years of taxpayer funding that started in 2013 to help the airline build a foundation to carry their business forward.

"So what we're looking for from the state is two more rounds of funding and hopefully by then Southwest is able to support itself and possibly add more flights to better serve this market."

Chronis adds, "We think that the program has been a great success."

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