- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has asked Southwest Airlines Chairman Herb Kelleher to consider moving the company’s corporate headquarters to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Mr. Ehrlich spoke late Wednesday with Mr. Kelleher about a move to the Baltimore airport, the airline’s fourth-largest hub. But Southwest, which has been in Dallas since 1971, isn’t packing boxes.

The likelihood that Southwest will leave its corporate headquarters next to Love Field in Dallas appears remote, but Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly last week initiated rampant speculation about the company’s future when he said he will listen to an unsolicited offer from Phoenix, which hopes to persuade the airline to relocate.

Phoenix pounced on Southwest because of the airline’s frustration over the Wright Amendment, the 1979 law limiting departures from Love Field.

Since Mr. Kelly’s remarks, officials in Maryland and Chicago have contacted Southwest Airlines to ask about the company’s relocation plans.

“Herb Kelleher and Governor Ehrlich are good friends, and we’ll try to build on that,” said Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

Maryland officials have not made Southwest Airlines an offer, Mr. Melissaratos said.

“We’re not that far yet,” he said. “To the extent Southwest is serious about a move, we will make available all the benefits Maryland has to offer.”

Chances may be slim that Southwest will leave Dallas, Mr. Melissaratos said, but if the airline does decide to move, Maryland will be a strong contender.

“I think Mr. Kelleher told the governor that if the airline moves, Baltimore would be his No. 1 choice,” he said.

In response to questions after his speech Tuesday at the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) annual industry forecast, Mr. Kelleher said there is no chance that Southwest will move to Phoenix.

Then he said the airline will entertain offers from other cities and might have to move unless Congress repeals the Wright Amendment, engineered by former House Speaker Jim Wright, Texas Democrat, to protect neighboring Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

Under the amendment, planes with 57 seats or more leaving Love Field can fly only to states contiguous to Texas and to Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri.

In his remarks, Mr. Kelleher confirmed that other cities have contacted the airline. Then he became reticent, joking that he did not want to start a fight with American Airlines Senior Vice President William Ris, seated at table in the front of the room. American Airlines, based at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, supports the Wright Amendment.

Southwest has a established a massive presence at BWI over 13 years, which leads Maryland officials to think that BWI would make a suitable home for the low-cost airline.

Southwest began operations in Baltimore in September 1993 with just eight daily departures. Now it has 165 departures a day and is the biggest carrier at the airport. The airline has about 120 daily departures from Love Field. Southwest’s top three hubs are Las Vegas McCarron International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and Chicago’s Midway International Airport.

Southwest is largely responsible for the steady expansion of BWI. When Southwest began flights at the airport, BWI had 9 million passengers a year. Airport officials said 19.7 million passengers passed through the facility last year.

In May, the airport opened a $264 million concourse for Southwest Airlines, which has about 2,500 employees in and around BWI.

“Without question, Southwest has driven the growth of this airport and of low-cost aviation throughout the country,” airport spokesman Jonathan Dean said.

The airline is focusing on repealing the amendment rather than finding a new corporate headquarters, said Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart, who attended Mr. Kelleher’s speech at the FAA’s annual forecast.

“It’s nice to be wanted, and it makes you feel appreciated,” he said. “But if we do our work appropriately, the amendment will be repealed.”

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