Antitrust Concerns about Wright Plan Linger

Texas lawmakers say the Wright amendment deal strikes a fair and careful balance among the interests of airlines and cities in North Texas. But the deal raised so many antitrust questions that even the great-grandson of legendary robber baron John D. Rockefeller voiced concern.

"I think it's a bad precedent," said Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va.

It was the elder Rockefeller's Standard Oil monopoly that inspired Congress to pass the Sherman Antitrust Act more than a century ago. Last week, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison scrambled to tamp down antitrust objections contained in a leaked Justice Department memo. The core issue is whether the plan to limit gates at Love Field goes too far in protecting Southwest and American airlines from competition at Love Field and Dallas/Fort Worth International.

And Justice Department lawyers weren't the only ones saying the deal might run afoul of antitrust law. Mr. Rockefeller, the only Senate Commerce Committee member to vote against the deal, compared Love and its special legal status to the unique principality of Monaco.

"It's very odd when you carve out one airport and you say that this is the way it's going to be," he said, though he says he'll go along with the deal after being assured that the Federal Aviation Administration will still oversee the region's aviation policy. "It's just all by itself in the American system, and that's a rather large airport to separate out."

Of course, since Congress outlawed monopolistic practices, it can also offer dispensation. In fact, the bill Ms. Hutchison and other Texas lawmakers are pushing to ratify the Wright deal offers blanket antitrust immunity - which has proved a red flag for leaders of the House and Senate judiciary committees.

"We could repeal the whole antitrust law. We could repeal the Sherman Act and the Clayton Act," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., sarcasm evident as he referred to the trust-busting laws adopted in 1890 and 1914.

"We could let big oil run wild." He paused for effect and laughed. "Big oil is running wild."

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