As Wichita considers building a new terminal at its airport, we should pause to consider the effect an expensive new terminal would have on the cost of traveling to and from Wichita, and by extension, the economic health and vitality of our town.
My reading reveals that airlines are starting to become alarmed at the high costs some airports charge airlines for using their facilities. A recent Wall Street Journal article (“Airports Start to Feel the Sting Of Airline Cost-Cutting Efforts” published on May 17, 2006) reads, in part:
The same economic forces in the air-travel business that have created buy-your-own box lunches in coach and fully reclining seats for long flights in business class are now showing up in a split at airports. The split is creating tensions as cash-strapped airlines balk at paying for first-class airports. Air Canada, the main tenant of the new terminal in Toronto, says it can’t afford the high fees.
Airports have long been considered economic-development tools for the communities that own them. Many, like Toronto, erected palatial terminals to showcase their cities and passed on the costs to airlines and passengers. Even as airlines have gone bankrupt, airport earnings have risen.
Now, the combination of financial woes of traditional airlines and the explosion of low-cost competitors around the world is forcing big changes in airport design and operation. Airlines, which have already won concessions from employees, travel agents and suppliers, are now putting pressure on airports to cut costs and fees. And low-cost carriers have sparked the creation of bare-bones depots, like Schiphol’s “Pier H,” in Europe and Asia.
“Many airport monopolies still operate in the dark ages. And our patience has worn out,” says Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association, the airline trade group that has spearheaded an attack on airport charges in Europe, Asia and the Americas.
Closer to home, and very relevant to Wichita’s desire to attract additional low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines, we learn from the same article that Southwest is quite sensitive to the costs it faces:
Denver International, which was attacked for its high fees when it opened in 1995, has since cut costs and reduced fees, winning back low-cost Southwest Airlines. And some airports, such as Schiphol and the Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany, have moved ahead by luring new airlines with low operating costs. In the low-margin airline world, a savings of a few dollars per passenger can turn an unprofitable flight into a money-maker, especially among discount airlines charging less than $100 per ticket.
“Nowadays if you start to build a new terminal, you are no longer able to build a castle,” says Michael Garvens, chairman of the Cologne Bonn Airport, which opened a terminal for low-cost airlines in December 2004.
We certainly don’t want to be placed in the position of Seattle, where Southwest cut its service there because of costs. From the article “Airport costs climb” from the Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle) on March 5, 2004 we can read this:
The $587 million cost of the South Terminal expansion at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is driving away at least one of the very carriers it was intended to attract. … But Southwest Airlines in January cut its daily flights between Seattle and Spokane from eight to five, reducing its overall daily flights through Sea-Tac to 36. According to Southwest manager of properties Amy Weaver, the move was largely due to the airport’s rising per-passenger costs for carriers.
Talking to some people and reading some remarks, it seems as though not many are too concerned about the costs of a new terminal, as it will be paid for by federal money and airline fees. But someone pays those federal tax dollars, and now we learn that airlines, especially discount carriers, are sensitive to the fees they must pay to use airports.
The Wichita Eagle recently reported that Wichita airport officials have been talking with the airlines, and the airlines are “happy with the prospect of a new terminal.” That is directly contradictory to the reporting contained in the two articles cited above.
Local business leaders tell us that we must have an airport that makes a good first impression for Wichita. A grand airport terminal is impressive until you realize who pays for such things. I have been in terminals in fine cities — Denver and Salt Lake City come to mind — where the gate area is quite spartan, being built from corrugated steel in the manner of a warehouse. And if I remember correctly, in Salt Lake City the concourse I used was not even sealed to the elements.
In Cincinnati, Comair, part of the Delta network, has its own remote gate area. That building is plain in its construction, but worked very well. (As Delta and Comair no longer fly to this destination from Wichita, I guess it doesn’t matter now.) I appreciated these facilities for what appeared to be their concerted effort to hold down costs.
In Wichita, we should remember that fewer passengers used our airport in 2005 than did in 2004. In 2006, each month’s traffic has been less than that for same month from last year. We are told not to worry about this, that air traffic is down nationwide, but the decline in Wichita is several times that of the nationwide trend.
(From the ATA Monthly Passenger Traffic Report, enplanements nationwide are down 0.6% for the first five months of 2006, compared to the same months from 2005. In Wichita, enplanements for the first five months of 2006 are 284,848, compared to 300,169 for the first five months of 2005. That is a drop of 5.1%.)
At the same time our airport traffic is rapidly declining, AirTran, the local discount carrier, is experiencing increased passenger counts, meaning that we are becoming increasingly dependent on a discount carrier. (For the first five months of 2005, AirTran’s share of traffic in Wichita was 6.7%. For the first five months of 2006, AirTran’s share is 10.6%.)
As the articles cited above tell us, these low-costs carriers are very sensitive to the cost of using airports. AirTran may not be concerned, at least not regarding its cost in using the Wichita airport, as our local governments reimburse AirTran for its losses.
Airport officials tell us that fixing what is wrong with our existing terminal will cost nearly as much as building a new terminal. It is difficult for me to believe this. We must find a way to hold down the costs that airlines and travelers face when flying to and from Wichita. Our current airport officials do not seem to agree.