Congress to Hear Testimony on Repeal of Wright Amendment

Identical bills to implement the agreement are set to be introduced as early as Thursday in the House and Senate.

Appearing in a separate group before the committee are Reps. Barton, Granger, Hensarling and Sam Johnson, as well as Republican Reps. Michael Burgess and Ralph Hall.

Also on the witness list is Michael Cirillo, vice president of system operations, air traffic organization at the Federal Aviation Administration.

Cirillo will likely answer safety questions expected from Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the transportation committee. He may also be asked to weigh in on questions about the allocation of gates.

The aviation subcommittee is expected to hear solid backing from the North Texas delegation.

Even so, there are likely to be moments of intrigue for anyone who has closely followed the Wright amendment debate.

Will Barton use the hearing to finally drop his opposition to repealing Wright and fully endorse the legislation that is expected to bear his name?

And will Hensarling follow his lead and stifle his oft-repeated mantra to immediately repeal the Wright amendment?

For his part, Barton appeared to signal his support Tuesday in a prepared statement: "I look forward to testifying as to why I believe Congress should thoroughly evaluate the agreement and determine the best legislative means of implementing this plan."

Hensarling was holding out, saying he still prefers immediate repeal: "I will make the case about why full and immediate repeal ought to be considered."

The Texans have said they think a unified delegation is important if other members of Congress are to follow their lead - including members from Nebraska and Tennessee where some constituents wanted immediate access to non-stop flights to Love.

Even so, there will be questions about competition at Love Field because three airlines will control all 20 gates that would remain open under terms of the plan. The compromise extends their leases until 2028.

If Wright were fully repealed, JetBlue would like to have access to its own gates. But under the plan, the airline would have to sublease space at under-used gates now held by Southwest, American and Continental Airlines Inc.

With that controversy in the mix, Hutchison sent a memo to key senators and House members in advance of the hearings, arguing that entrant airlines could find gate space at Love Field.

She noted that carriers have to deal with similar constraints at many airports nationwide. And if new airlines are not happy with the gate space available at Love Field, Hutchison had a suggestion: Check out Dallas-Fort Worth.

"D/FW has one of the most aggressive air service incentive programs in the country," said Ms. Hutchison.

Terry Mitchell, an assistant administrator at Love Field, said airlines looking to launch service at Love should first look to sublet from existing carriers.

If the new airline cannot gain entry, Mitchell said, it can appeal to the airport administrator, who would assess gate capacity and, possibly, order an existing airline to give up some time at one of its gates.

The administrator also could order an existing airline like Southwest to consolidate its available space to make a full gate available to a new entrant.

That action would likely be opposed by the existing airlines that want to force their competitors to operate without their own dedicated gates.

Bob Kneisley, Southwest's associate general counsel, said there was sufficient excess capacity to allow a new airline to share space with an existing carrier. He noted that Southwest has been forced to operate with less than optimal gate space at other airports.

Indeed, a study by DMJM Aviation and commissioned by the city of Dallas found that there are currently 7.9 daily flights at each Love Field gate. It predicted that would rise 32 percent by 2020 to about 10 flights, an indication the existing airlines have gate time to share.

"It is a bit much to say we have a right to say to get any facility we want," said Kneisley, Southwest's associate general counsel.

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