Delta Air Lines says it is cancelling seven of its daily flights from Wichita’s Mid-Continent airport in a dramatic gesture in its battle over subsidies given by the Kansas city to low-cost rival AirTran Airways.

Wichita rejected an offer from Delta to add daily nonstop flights to Orlando in exchange for the same $2.5 million annual subsidy. Coming as low-cost carriers have made local support a major growth tool, Delta’s tactics present one of the clearest tests yet of a key policy that airports cannot favour individual carriers if they are to receive federal grants and funds.

Delta says the subsidies create a competitive disadvantage. Wichita and the surrounding county claim Delta has overcharged local travellers for years. They have given AirTran over $7 million in assistance since May 2002, when the low-cost carrier began service there.

AirTran currently flies between Wichita and Atlanta three times daily, with one weekly Orlando flight. The Delta routes to be discontinued include two monopolies, Salt Lake City and Cincinnati, plus two of its six daily flights to Atlanta. After the seven flights are cancelled, Wichita will have a total of 49 daily flights.

The FAA said in April that the AirTran subsidies discriminate against other airlines serving the airport, but Wichita officials have disputed this and said if they were to subsidise Delta, it would be as if a shepherd had fed a wolf “so that the wolf can get bigger and stronger and slaughter more sheep”.

Delta says: “Frankly, Delta cannot compete on a route where a competing carrier is being subsidised.” AirTran strategic planning and scheduling director John Kirby counters that Delta is already a beneficiary of airport guarantees and subsidies elsewhere. Some of those are under a $20 million federal programme that encourages service to small and underserved airports.

Source: Airline Business