Brownback recommends funding state airline subsidy through 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. - Governor Sam Brownback recommends funding a controversial state airline subsidy through 2015 in his proposed state budget. The subsidy was the subject of a 41 Action News investigation in July 2012.

Lawmakers launched the Kansas Affordable Airfares program in 2006. It set aside $5 million to bring affordable air service to communities in Kansas.

In 2011, funding from this grant helped launch service to Garden City.

"Without the support of the affordable airfares program, we wouldn't be able to provide service to western Kansas," said Rachelle Powell, the Director of Aviation for Garden City, in July 2012.

The 41 Action News investigators found most of the money for the program actually went to Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport.

In 2011, Air Tran received $6.5 million from state and local funds to subsidize flights in and out of Wichita. That same year, Frontier airlines received $167,000.

Despite receiving the most money to subsidize flights, 41 Action News found Air Tran's flights were relatively empty compared to airlines that did not receive funds.

For the first three months of 2012, both Delta and American Eagle flights were 74 percent full, while Air Tran flights were only 44 percent full.

At the time of our investigation, then state Sen. Chris Steineger from Kansas City, Kan., called the program corporate welfare.

"The program is in place in Kansas for fair fares even in this year's budget and last year's budget when we were cutting aid to public schools, the Wichita airport subsidy stayed alive in the budget, and I just think that is a matter of bad priorities," Steineger said on June 13, 2012. Steineger lost reelection in the fall.

The Kansas legislative post audit committee looked into the program. Auditors found the program did accomplish its goal of bringing more flights to Wichita and lowering airfares. However, it also said that the program's success was overstated.

Wichita airport officials bragged fares went down by 17 percent. However, U.S. Department of Transportation statistics show it was 12.7 percent.

The audit also found inaccuracies in the estimated number of jobs the program was credited with creating and with the figures released to support Kansas' return on its investment.

Still, Governor Brownback's proposed budget recommends funding the program through 2015.

"The Affordable Fares program has worked as the Legislature had intended when it passed it in 2005. It has been successful in its goal of keeping airfares affordable for Kansans. Additionally, the program played a key role in Wichita and the State of Kansas' efforts to recruit Southwest Airlines to Wichita," spokeswoman Sherienne Jones-Sontag said.

Officials attribute the subsidy with cutting the risk associated with the cost of running flights from Wichita.

Southwest Airlines acquired Air Tran in May 2011. Southwest announced it will begin servicing Wichita customers in June 2013. The hope is that the airline can increase travelers so they won't need the subsidy in the future.

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