Wichita airport spends $180K on ads

The Wichita airport spends to produce and broadcast a television advertisement, and taxpayers didn’t have to pay. Sort of.

Shortly after the opening of the new terminal at Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport, television ads began appearing. Citizens viewing the ads might wonder why a government-owned facility that has a monopoly on service needs to advertise, especially when the purpose of the ad is to generate an emotional response. (Curiously, the ad can’t be found on the airport’s website, but it is available on the Wichita City Channel 7 site, where it’s labeled as a public service announcement.)

Inquiry to the city about the cost of the ads resulted in these figures:

Production costs for TV: $83,308.73 (includes talent fees)
Media buy: $97,522
Total: $180,830.73

Apart from the necessity or wisdom of this advertisement, there is another consideration that has important implications for public policy. When I was supplied these figures, I was admonished that these are not tax dollars being spent. Instead, it’s airport revenue. The city also says the same about the cost of the new terminal — no tax dollars were spent. How is this possible?

The airport has a monopoly on regularly scheduled commercial air service in Wichita. If you want to travel on a major airline, you must use the Wichita airport or drive several hours to another airport. The airport functions as a branch of government. The fees it collects — the so-called “airport revenue” or “airport funds” — are mandatory. The rates are set by government. They fees are collected by government and spent by government.

Officials say the user fees the airport collects are not taxes because they are voluntary. You don’t pay the Wichita airport passenger fee (it’s included in ticket prices) unless you actually use the airport. Arguments like these are used by government officials to distinguish user fees from taxes. They say that the airport is operating like a business, charging only those who use its service.

There’s a small grain of truth in that. But when the airport has a monopoly on commercial air service in a large area, are the fees really voluntary? Of course not.

This principle of user fees being preferred to taxes is quickly abandoned when it suits the need of government spenders. For example, the state, county, and city tax everyone to pay Southwest Airlines to provide service in Wichita. Why not collect the subsidy funds only from airport users? It would be just another user fee.

The justification used by the city leads citizens to believe that government can spend money at no one’s cost. That’s false, but politicians believe it. Or so they say.

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