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Can Tom Hawk get his seat back?

By Jelani Yancey

The city’s top priority in 2012 will be expanding air service at Manhattan Regional Airport. However, city officials cannot yet say what form that expansion may take.

Ron Fehr, city manager, said the city is in confidential talks right now to add a new destination to the city’s air service. The city currently offers air service to two major hubs, Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth, through American Eagle Airlines.

The flights have seen marked success in recent years, with emplanements increasing from about 11,300 in 2007 to about 55,000 in 2011. The city projects emplanements to grow at a rate of 4.7 percent through 2030.

“We are looking at expand to a different hub that will not compete heavily with out current destinations,” Fehr said. “We are looking at both more direct eastern routes and more direct western routes.”

Fehr could not give any more specifics due to the confidential nature of the negotiations, but he did note the city is looking at an airline other than American Eagle.

“We hope we can reach an agreement with an airline that can meet those needs,” Fehr said.

Fehr said the city is “working on some additional revenue guarantees,” too. The city utilized minimum revenue guarantees previously with American Eagle. The city received funds from the state in the form of a $2 million minimum revenue guarantee. Essentially, if Manhattan’s air service was not profitable the city could draw upon funds from the state.

However, the city did not have to draw upon those funds due to the success of service to Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth. The funds were turned back to the state. Despite not utilizing those funds, Fehr said that level of support from the state is indispensable in attracting a quality airline.

Fehr noted Governor Sam Brownback’s budget proposal calls for $2 million for air service incentive funds, which would help expand air service and make airport improvements. Potential improvements include expansion of the airport’s terminal. At last week’s “leaders summit” in Overland Park, city officials released a “terminal area master plan executive summary” that envisions, among other things, a terminal expanded to three times its present size by 2030, with much of that expansion taking place by 2015.  Significant increases in parking space are also projected.

Fehr said Brownback’s proposal still has to make it through the legislature, a time frame that could be the determining factor in expansion of flight options itself.

“It will probably be difficult to ink anything with an airline before we know the result of that,” Fehr said.

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