Hearne: Topeka Taking on Kansas City in Flights to Chicago

airplanetakeoff2Anyone out there hearing footsteps?

Because if you do, it could be because Topeka is creeping up on Kansas City. I’m kidding, of course. Hey, I lived there for three months two years ago, so I’m fully acquainted with how lame that town is. And that doesn’t even include that Sam Brownback and Fred Phelps call T-Town their home.

Nope, the real problem with Topeka is it’s too small to have the amenities of a big city like KC and too big and bogusly political to have the charm of a small town.

Oh but now, according to Brownback and the Topeka Chamber of Commerce, the town is taking a step toward the big leagues by getting United Airlines to scramble two nonstops a day to and from Chicago out of Forbes Field aka the Topeka Regional Airport.

For seven years, Topeka’s airport has been mostly a haven, if you will, for small private aircraft and charter flights by University of Kansas athletic teams and their opponents.

The Chicago action goes down starting in early January.

Yet despite a recent $30,000-plus sprucing up, Topeka’s airport still doesn’t even have a respectable sign, a cool restaurant or shop, and its parking lots are in sorry shape, festooned with cracked pavement overgrown grass and dead trees. They did manage to slap some new paint and carpet on it and replaced some of the windows. And the big selling point is that you can park there til the cows come home for just five bucks all in, versus $7 a day at Kansas City’s “International Airport.”

Screen shot 2013-12-30 at 9.17.51 AMTherein lies the problem…

That being KCI or MCI, however you want to cut the cake.

The $64 million question: will United’s new nonstop service to Chicago fly when it takes off next month?

“Well, it’s got an insurance policy built in, guaranteeing the airline a profit,” notes KCC travel dude Jack Poessiger of the city and government subsidized deal with United. “So the airline has nothing to lose; they’re guaranteed to make a profit. Can it stand on its own? That’s another question.

“If it doesn’t work out in two years when the subsidies run out and there’s no more funding and not enough patronage, United’s going to pull that deal, which only makes business sense.”

Here’s how things shake out.

Topeka has a population of 127,000 and change, 2,700 or so of whom on average allegedly make their way to the airport in Kansas City each day to fly somewhere. And since the twice daily puddle jumpers heading to and from Topeka to Chicago only hold 50 folks, all they need to fill the planes are 100 people out of that 2,700 a day each way.

“I wouldn’t call them puddle jumpers,” Poessiger corrects. “They’re small jets, but if you’re six feet or taller, you’ll be doing a little bending.”

Can Topeka sustain its air service sans the subsidies?

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 “That’s just not realistic, that’s why it’s subsidized,” Poessiger says. “Right now there are three airlines out of Kansas City that fly nonstops to Chicago. I’m going to guess that United and American each have five flights or more per day. Then Southwest flies only into Midway and they’ve got probably 9 or 10 flights a day. So between those three airlines and two airports (Kansas City and Topeka), you’ve got maybe 20 flights departing to Chicago almost every day.

“That’s a pretty good lift out of Kansas City to Chicago, but it’s less than it used to be. The airlines have all cut back because they couldn’t sell enough seats, so now they’re stuffing more people into fewer planes to save money.”

Which says what about the prospects for the Topeka to Chicago flights succeeding?

“I just don’t think it would have happened without the subsidies,” Poessiger says of the $2 million-plus propping up the deal. “I doubt any airline would give Topeka a second thought without the subsidy. Ironically, Allegiant Air pulled out of Topeka several years ago (2007) because it was too close to Kansas City.

000731_s“Allegiant specialize in small markets like Topeka with maybe twice a week service to vacation spots like Las Vegas. But they can’t be too close to a major airport because the business model doesn’t work. In this area they fly out of Springfield, Grand Island and Rapid City and they have very good business.”

And when the subsidies run out in two years?

“Well, when the airline has to stand on its own two feet, they’d better be in the black or they’ll be out of there,” Poessiger says. “Southwest, which owns Air Tran, is pulling out of Branson and Key West in June. I think the Topeka to Chicago service is a noble experiment and it could work because they are small jets that don’t eat as much fuel, but I don’t know if their breakeven is 80 percent of the plane or what.”

As for the somewhat crude, rundown state of the facilities in Topeka, “Welcome to the wild, wild west,” Poessiger quips. “It may not be pretty, but it could be a step in the right direction. Will it last? Only the good people of Topeka and the surrounding area will be able to provide that answer, depending on whether they make use of that service or not. Of course I’m skeptical, because government money or money pledged by chambers only lasts so long.

“You know what would be an interesting thing to do. Once this thing gets going, would be to pull up a phony booking and seat map online and see how many seats are full. See if the planes are half full, three quarters full or whatever. It’s an interesting thing about Topeka, I’d have never thought they’d have started air service up again, especially with a major carrier. So power to the people.” 

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One Response to Hearne: Topeka Taking on Kansas City in Flights to Chicago

  1. Joe Lewellen says:

    United puddle jumpers are always delayed and learned my lesson last year to and from KC and Denver. Don’t torture yourself. Those little planes are effected to easily by weather and repair.