Metropolis: Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Air War

New fronts keep sprouting in the fight over Wright.


The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has taken Congress’ eyes off the North Texas airport war temporarily — but both sides seem to be using the respite to put pressure where they think it will do the most good. And just as Southwest Airlines was mounting its ad campaign in support of the Wright Amendment repeal it’s been pushing for, new support for keeping the amendment — or at least, new questions about Southwest’s numbers — was also cropping up.

In fact, it was another disaster — that of 9/11 — that helped push Southwest into a new campaign to get rid of the amendment that restricts it from scheduling flights longer than one state away, if they originate at Dallas’ Love Field. The extra hassles and delays that air travelers now face as a result of post-9/11 security restrictions put Southwest “back in our old stomping grounds,” said spokeswoman Beth Harbin. “We’re back to competing with the car. If you have to get to the airport three hours in advance of the flight, you might as well just drive.” With that factor reducing the number of short-hop flights that people are willing to make, and with Delta Airlines pulling out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, “it seemed like the right time to repeal Wright,” she said.

U.S. Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Sam Johnson of Texas have sponsored legislation to repeal Wright. On the other side of the argument, Senators James Inhere of Tennessee and Tom Harking of Iowa are proposing a measure to prohibit all commercial flights out of Love Field. Their “True Competition Act” is intended to consolidate all of the region’s commercial air travel at D/FW— going back to the pre-Wright Amendment concept of a single regional airport.

Southwest is working to convince the public to come into the debate on their side: Their setlovefree web site lists only the legislation that supports the repeal of Wright. American Airlines, meanwhile, is trying to drum up support among its employees to keep the Wright Amendment in place.

“The issue remains this: Those who want to open Love [Field] want there to be a competition between airports, not between airlines,” said former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall in an e-mail interview. “Airline competition can and should take place at D/FW, and Love Field should be closed to commercial service.”

At least one Dallas-area member of Congress believes that the Wright Amendment should stay just where it is — protecting Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport as well as the neighborhoods around Love.

In the 1970s the Civil Aeronautics Board, now the FAA, was tasked with growing a national network of major airports. In North Texas, as elsewhere, the agency did it by consolidating a lot of regional airports into one major airport. In this area, three airports were supposed to be consolidated, more or less, into D/FW. Meacham Field in Fort Worth was closed to commercial traffic, and Greater Southwest was plowed under. Love Field, however, stayed open, with Southwest Airlines continuing to fly out of it with the restriction that it book direct flights only as far as neighboring states, although they could continue on elsewhere from there.

The Fort Worth City Council, Tarrant County commissioners, the regional transportation coalition, and Tarrant County Mayors Council all still support the Wright Amendment. They believe it’s in their economic interest to do so, since a strong D/FW Airport supports the entire Metroplex.

A May 2005 study commissioned by D/FW Airport predicts that repealing Wright would cost the larger airport 14 million to 21 million passengers, since American Airlines would move part of its operation from D/FW to Love to compete. “Southwest is the biggest domestic carrier in the U.S. We aren’t talking about David and Goliath here, unless American Airlines is David,” said Dan Hagen, American’s managing director of corporate affairs. “By not being at Love Field, we have ceded to Southwest a number of passengers from Dallas. We will move part of our operation to Love if Wright is repealed.” The study, by the SH&E International Air Transport Consultancy, predicts that if the amendment is repealed, D/FW passenger levels will decrease to levels seen 20 years ago and will take 12 to 19 years to recover. American Airlines pays its fleet tax in Fort Worth, and D/FW Airport has benefited Tarrant County mightily since its opening.

Support for the amendment from the western half of the Metroplex is to be expected, then. But when U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Dallas) came out in favor of maintaining the Wright Amendment, it was more of a surprise.

“Love Field is in my district,” she said. “We have to do what is legal and what is right. You know we could sell drugs and make a lot of money, but that isn’t legal either,” she said with a laugh. “Our economic engine is D/FW Airport. Irving wouldn’t be anything but a little town. Now it has headquarters for corporations because it is in the middle of the country. I truly hope that for the sake of the stability of North Texas’ economy, for the noise and congestion that Love Field already faces, that Southwest Airlines will reconsider its position for the good of the region.”

Southwest’s position is that the region will be helped by “the Southwest effect” — i.e., the idea that other air carriers would have to lower their fares on longer flights to match what Southwest would offer if allowed — and that more people would fly as a result. “We will see the Southwest effect here because we have seen it at 60 other cities,” Harbin said. She quoted a 1992 Department of Transportation study that found that “D/FW stands to benefit when we lower fares.” When Southwest Airlines opened operations in Philadelphia, a city dominated by US Airways, a federal aviation agency calculated that travelers saved $1.2 billion in the first two years.

However, Southwest Airlines is already operating in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And DOT officials say that the 1992 study has been made obsolete by more recent events. “The 1992 study is totally outmoded for today’s aviation industry,” said DOT spokesman Bill Mosely.

A 2001 DOT study looked at the Southwest effect. Researchers concluded that companies like Southwest operating at smaller airports — Houston’s Hobby Airport, Chicago’s Midway, and Love Field in Dallas — caused carriers at the larger airport in each region to drop fares by about 20 percent.

But the DOT also determined that the Southwest effect has already had its effect in the Metroplex — and that even if the amendment is repealed, it might not lower airfares in the region. Low-fare carriers like Air Tran, Mesa, and Frontier already compete head to head with the airlines like American at D/FW, and Spirit, another low-fare carrier, just announced plans to start operating there.

In fact, Crandall predicted, allowing Southwest to fly longer-haul flights from Love could cut down on the frequency of its short-hop flights — thus lowering competition and increasing prices on those flights.

Judging by the starburst map that Southwest Airlines is using in its ad campaign, the repeal of the Wright Amendment would allow Southwest passengers to fly directly from Dallas to cities all across the country. However, Harbin admitted that, “We pick our markets very carefully. It might be eight or nine years before we move in” to provide service to a new destination.

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