Wichita economic development claims deserve scrutiny

Reports that Southwest Airlines may be considering adding service in Wichita have lead to enthusiasm for the economic development that this service would add.

In the current case, reporting by Molly McMillan of the Wichita Eagle tells of a study produced by Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research. She reports “In a worst-case scenario, the entrance of the airline in the study would add roughly 7,000 direct and indirect jobs in Wichita over a three-year period.”

An editorial in today’s edition of the Eagle repeats this number.

While more air service options are good for Wichita travelers, we need to be suspicious of the lofty claims of huge jobs and economic impact like the number claimed in this case.

In particular, 7,000 jobs is a very large number. According to figures provided by the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, only one company in the greater Wichita area has over 7,000 employees. The company with an employee count nearest 7,000 is Cessna, with about 6,000 employees.

Can anyone seriously claim that adding one more airline to the many already serving Wichita will result in the addition of more jobs than what exists at Cessna?

These economic development figures need to be looked at closely. In 2005, I noted in the article Stretching figures strains credibility that the Center for Economic Development and Business Research has overstated the case before. In particular, the center included all the employees of Cessna and Bombardier in calculations of the economic impact of the Wichita airport:

By reading this study I learned that the employees of Cessna and Bombardier — 12,134 in total — are counted in determining the economic impact of the airport. Why? To quote the study: “While it might appear that manufacturing businesses could be based anywhere in the area, both Cessna and Bombardier require a location with runways and instrumentation structures that allow for flights and flight testing of business jet airplanes.” This is true, but it is quite a stretch to attribute the economic impact of these employees to the airport.

For one thing, if we count the economic impact of the income of these employees as belonging to the airport, what then do we say about the economic impact of Cessna and Bombardier? We would have to count it as very little, because the impact of their employees’ earnings has been assigned to the airport. This is, of course, assuming that we count the impact of these employees only once.

Or suppose that Cessna tires of being on the west side of town, so it moves east and starts using Jabara Airport. Would Cessna’s economic impact on Sedgwick County be any different? I think it wouldn’t. But its impact on the Wichita airport would now be zero. Similar reasoning would apply if Cessna built its own runway.

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