Congress to Hear Testimony on Repeal of Wright Amendment

Congress will get to witness a first Wednesday: Lawmakers will hear a historic request from the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth to repeal the Wright amendment.

The request will be supported by the region's two fiercely competitive airlines - American Airlines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. - and many North Texas members of Congress who have been split on the issue.

All this is expected to play out at a hearing on Capitol Hill before the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee.

The local compromise before the panel would lift restrictions on long-haul flights at Dallas Love Field after eight years. If the deal is passed into law, passengers would immediately be able to fly anywhere in the U.S. from Love, as long as they first stopped in one of the nine Wright states.

The session follows a high-profile visit in late June by a North Texas entourage that lobbied House and Senate leaders to support the proposal.

"This hearing is an opportunity for the stakeholders to share their positions with lawmakers who have jurisdiction over the issue," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the ringleader among the House members from North Texas.

The hearing will give rank-and-file lawmakers a chance to quiz the Texans on their plan, as well as raise any concerns: Chief among those is the limited gate space available for entrant airlines at Love Field and safety issues that might be raised by new flights at the close-in airport.

"That is what the whole hearing is about - all these issues," said Robert Land, chief lobbyist for JetBlue Airways Corp. "We are looking forward to the committee having a good, thorough debate about all these issues."

Identical bills to implement the agreement are set to be introduced as early as Thursday in the House and Senate. North Texas lawmakers hope the bill can be enacted before Congress' scheduled adjournment in early October.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, is expected to introduce the bill in the Senate. The House version would be sponsored by Barton, along with Rep. Kay Granger, a fellow Republican, Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson and other as yet undetermined members.

Legislative aides were still working on the draft Tuesday.

But a copy obtained by The Dallas Morning News reveals it will be a simple proposal of about 2 pages, allowing for immediate through-ticketing and lifting Wright eight years from the date of enactment.

The bill also would cap the number of gates at Love Field at 20, as prescribed in the agreement between the cities and the airlines. But it would leave to the city of Dallas the right to allocate those gates among airlines.

Placing that gate cap into federal law could draw opposition from some members who do not want Congress managing local airports. Chief among those is Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, who sponsored a bill with Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, to fully repeal the 1979 Wright law.

"I am trying to get Congress out of the business of choosing winners and losers in airports," he said.

The proposal also contains language preventing Love Field from becoming an international gateway and provisions allowing for the operation of charter flights.

Still missing from the draft is possible language regarding air safety. Some congressional aides expect a clause that would require the Federal Aviation Administration to sign off on the safety of the plan.

Officials from airlines critical of the compromise, such as JetBlue and Northwest Airlines Inc., will not testify at the hearing. Land said JetBlue, which favors full repeal of Wright, is submitting written testimony to the panel.

The witness list does include Dallas Mayor Laura Miller and Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief. They will be joined at the witness table by Gerard Arpey, American's chief executive; Southwest chairman Herb Kelleher; and Kevin Cox, chief operating officer of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

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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