Congressional Panels Approve Wright Amendment Compromise

Senate and House committees today approved a legislative compromise that would end the Wright Amendment flight restrictions at Dallas Love Field as a House committee took up a similar bill.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved the compromise legislation by a vote of 21-1, with the only dissenting vote coming from the panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

After the vote, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said she would continue to try and win Rockefeller's support so she could seek to bring the bill to the full Senate by unanimous consent.

While the bill introduced in the House does not have identical language, "we're on a dual track," Hutchison said.

In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the measure on a voice vote, with no discussion or objections.

The Wright Amendment Reform Act of 2006 (HR5830) was introduced by the committee's chairman, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, with many co-sponsors including Reps. James Oberstar, D-Minn.; John Mica, R-Fla.; Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas; Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell; Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth; Joe Barton, R-Arlington; Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville; Chet Edwards, D-Waco; Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall; Sam Johnson, R-Plano; Pete Sessions, R-Dallas; and Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler.

The local deal would repeal the Wright Amendment after eight years, allow immediate connecting and one-stop ticketing from Love, and cap the airport's size at 20 gates from the current 32, in part by having the city of Dallas acquire the Legend terminal, by condemnation if necessary, and close its six gates.

The cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, American and Southwest airlines and D/FW Airport reached the agreement after a lengthy campaign by Southwest and its supporters, who argued that the Wright Amendment hampers competition in the North Texas airline market and keeps fares from North Texas artificially high. Congress passed the Wright Amendment in the late 1970s to protect D/FW Airport from competition at Love.

Dual bills in the Senate and House would put into federal law the key components of the local agreement, and President Bush would have to sign the bill for it to become law.

Rockefeller called the bill a "bad precedent" and objected to pressure from North Texas that Congress not make changes to the compromise.

"Unfortunately, the local stakeholders have bound Sen. Hutchison's hands with an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it bill by demanding that Congress act to codify this agreement by the end of the year, knowing full well how very few legislative days remain in this Congress," he said. "This committee is being forced to consider, on very short notice, a bill that will have significant consequences for U.S. aviation policy in an effort to satisfy a limited but very vocal number of affected parties."

Rockefeller said the North Texas deal raises safety concerns and will encourage other communities to consider placing limits on their airports.

"Despite the purported uniqueness of the situation, I believe that this agreement will surely result in more communities coming to Congress to approve local decisions over airport usage that will limit capacity and air service options at even more airports," Rockefeller said.

U.S. Rep Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Young was lead co-sponsor of the House bill because "It was more than just a Texas issue. If it was perceived as just a Texas issue on the floor, it might get opposition. He stepped forward. It is a very good strategy."

Asked about roadblocks, Marchant said, "I don't see any. Some of the members feel that it's anticompetitive." ' but not enough to cause a problem. "It's not anticompetitive. The cities of Dallas and Fort Worth have both said if they [other airlines] want to come, they'll make a gate available."

On Michigan Rep. Vernon Ehler's comment that the bill is an "incredible sweetheart deal" for Southwest and American, Marchant said, "These are sweethearts that have been there for 30 years. If some of those other carriers want to come, we'd welcome them."

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee, said he thinks the differences between the House and Senate bills shouldn't be difficult to resolve.

"There are some minor differences between the House and Senate bills and it is my hope that they can be resolved," Mica said.

Hutchison met Tuesday with McKinney Mayor Bill Whitfield and other city officials who had objected that the agreement might harm their ability to market the Collin County Regional Airport for commercial aviation.

After a week of negotiations, Whitfield said he was satisfied with Hutchison's amendment clarifying that Fort Worth and Dallas cannot use illegal marketing tactics.

Separately, Southwest executives on Tuesday blasted a lawsuit filed this week over the proposed Wright Amendment compromise, calling the suit "absurd" and predicting that it won't affect the agreement.

The suit, filed Monday by the owners of the Legend Airlines terminal at Dallas Love Field, alleges that the compromise violates antitrust laws because it would distribute the market between American and Southwest airlines and keep the carriers from competing.

"That is absolutely absurd," Southwest Airlines spokesman Ed Stewart said. "The market wasn't divvied up; anyone who wants to come here can."

The owners of the terminal, Love Terminal Partners, said they were on the brink of selling the facility to Pinnacle Airlines for $100 million when Dallas Mayor Laura Miller announced her intention to close it.

That caused Pinnacle to pull out of the deal.

The antitrust suit, filed Monday in federal court in Dallas, asks the judge to halt the agreement and force American and Southwest to pay damages to the terminal owners.

The deal was "created for the purpose of protecting American Airlines' domination over long-haul flights out of North Texas for the next eight years (and) Southwest Airlines' dominance at Dallas Love Field," the suit states.

But Southwest officials said they doubt the suit will hamper efforts to get Congress to sign off on the deal.

"This is just one more bump in the road," Stewart said. "I think without question this lawsuit isn't going to hold water."

Stewart scoffed at the charge that the Wright compromise would stifle competition.

"There will be vigorous competition," he said. "Why do you think American is at Love right now? They want to compete."

He cited a recent study that predicted that consumers could save $259 million by booking connecting Southwest flights from Love to distant cities, an option that would become available if the agreement becomes law.

Currently, under the amendment, the airline is allowed to sell flights only to cities in Texas and a handful of nearby states. Passengers can connect to distant cities only by buying two sets of tickets.

Copyright: The Fort Worth Star-Telegram -- 7/20/06