- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

DALLAS - Southwest Airlines has fired the first warning shot toward American Airlines and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in a bitter fight to determine who can fly out of Dallas Love Field and whether long-range, nonstop flights ultimately will be available to and from the close-in Dallas airport.

Love Field, Southwest’s home base, has been restricted by a 25-year-old federal law that prohibits arrival at or departure from any destination other than cities in the four states adjoining Texas.

No other Texas airports have been involved in such restrictions. From Austin, San Antonio, Houston, El Paso, Amarillo or Lubbock, nonstop flights are allowed from coast to coast.

The special law is known as the Wright Amendment, pushed forth in 1978 by Rep. Jim Wright, Texas Democrat. It has been both cursed and praised over the years, but no one has moved to change it.

Southwest Airlines, which had just three Boeing 737s when it began to service Dallas, Houston and San Antonio in 1971, never publicly lobbied for a change. It concentrated instead on slowly moving into other major U.S. cities and became the biggest and most profitable domestic carrier in the nation.

Now, Southwest says things have changed.

Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said his company will muster a “grass-roots campaign” to free Love Field from this unusual restriction.

“It’s going to be hard to ignore the voice of the people on this because the people overwhelmingly favor changing the Wright Amendment,” the chief executive officer said.

Mr. Kelly said he realized his company was in for a hard fight because of strong opposition from Dallas/Fort Worth and from American Airlines, much of Fort Worth and some influential politicians.

Southwest will introduce a Web site offering facts about the situation, and a pitch that says long-haul fares would be cheaper and that Dallas/Fort Worth would not be hurt by such a change.

Dallas/Fort Worth officials have issued strong reactions.

“This will be our highest priority in the coming congressional term to avoid and put to bed the whole idea of repealing the Wright Amendment,” said Kevin Cox, the airport’s chief operating officer.

A few days ago, Dallas/Fort Worth released an economic study that said it would be in dire financial straits because of Delta Air Lines’ plan to close its hub there. That study estimated that Delta’s exodus would cost more than 7,000 jobs in northern Texas and more than $782 million annually to the region’s economy.

Mr. Kelly called the economic report “intentionally biased.” He said it ignored the fact that American Airlines will enjoy significant growth when Delta cancels more than 200 daily flights at Dallas/Fort Worth by the end of January. Before Delta’s announcement in September, American said it would add 70 daily flights by next summer, reaching an all-time high of 540 flights per day.

“It doesn’t surprise me that Southwest doesn’t like the study,” Mr. Cox said. “They would love for the [Dallas/Fort Worth area] to believe that the pullout of Delta is a minor blip on the economic screen. But obviously it is not.”

Mr. Kelly said Delta is obligated to pay for its terminal space until 2009 and the airport could increase landing fees. “Airports don’t go away,” Mr. Kelly said. “They don’t go bankrupt. The bills get paid.”

Dallas/Fort Worth officials contend that allowing Southwest to fly longer trips in and out of Love Field would siphon much more business out of the airport.

“That flies in the face of common sense,” Mr. Kelly said.

The mood here is of expectation, of a bruising battle similar to the one that birthed Dallas/Fort Worth back in 1973. The mayors, councils, big business firms and chambers of commerce generally have yet to come forward.

Back in the 1960s, Fort Worth’s big air terminal was called Greater Southwest International Airport. Dallas operated Love Field.

As aviation proliferated, the government refused to continue building runways, facilities and safety equipment for both airports, and forced Fort Worth and Dallas to agree on a “regional” airport designed to last for generations. After years of bickering, scores of hearings, investigations and economic studies, Dallas and Fort Worth agreed on a site between the two cities.

Greater Southwest was closed, but Love was allowed to remain open. As Southwest grew, Mr. Wright followed local politicians’ wishes and guided through the amendment that bears his name.

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