Changes to Wright Deal Might Be Sought

A day after Fort Worth, Dallas and their two largest airlines announced an historic agreement to end the highly controversial Wright Amendment, members of the North Texas congressional delegation flew down from Washington to hear firsthand key details of the pact.

They emerged from an hour-and-a-half meeting late Friday afternoon in an American Airlines Admirals Club lounge to say the deal still needs more work if it's going to be turned into legislation that could be passed by Congress.

But none of the representatives would specify what kind of details were left out of the compromise, which would lift quarter-century-old flight limits at Dallas Love Field after eight years. Most members of the House delegation from North Texas attended, having flown in on mid- afternoon flights from Washington, while Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn did not.

"I am not committed to enthusiastically supporting the agreement, but I am committed to studying it and to being supportive of the local solution if it looks like it's equally good public policy as it is to the Wright Amendment," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Arlington, a powerful longtime Wright Amendment proponent who has vowed to squash repeal bills in Congress.

Barton said he wants to hear from the Federal Aviation Administration, air-traffic controllers and others. Public hearings on the proposed new law will need to be set up in the House and Senate.

"As to the details of the agreement, I think there are still some concerns that various members of the delegation have," Barton said in an interview. "We have agreed to work with the local officials to set up a process in Washington to air out the proposal and see what can be done with it."

Barton said he thinks that there's opposition to the compromise across the country and that there also might be some opposition in North Texas, but not at the congressional level.

Opposition largely focuses on the eight-year wait before the amendment is completely lifted, as agreed to Thursday by the Fort Worth and Dallas mayors, American and Southwest airlines, and D/FW Airport.

The agreement, which must be passed by Congress and signed by the president to take effect, calls for immediate connecting and through-ticketing from Love. That would let passengers fly to long-haul destinations on one ticket, which is barred by the Wright Amendment.

Critics of the amendment say it hinders competition and keeps fares high in North Texas, and that even connecting and one-stop ticketing from Love will push fares down on routes from both North Texas passenger airports.

That's because Southwest, which dominates Love, wants to launch long-haul flights from the airport, which would put it into competition against American's routes from D/FW.

Proponents of the amendment, enacted in 1979 to protect the then-new D/FW Airport from competition, have said it's built D/FW into a powerhouse and shouldn't be altered.

Several members of the congressional delegation flew into D/FW on an American flight that landed at Gate A23, then walked the few steps to the Admirals Club at Gate A24. About the same time, Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief and executives from American, Southwest, D/FW Airport and the North Texas business community arrived at the airport, passed through security and made their way to the VIP frequent fliers club. American Chief Executive Gerard Arpey declined to comment as he walked in. Dallas Mayor Laura Miller didn't attend, having left town on vacation.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, one of the chief activists in a growing congressional repeal movement, listened to Friday's meeting via conference call. Officials from his office did not return calls for comment late Friday, and people who attended the meeting declined to say whether Hensarling had altered his views. He has said in recent interviews that the eight-year elimination time frame sounded too long.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, who supports keeping the Wright Amendment, said she's enthusiastic about the agreement because it satisfies two concerns: that Fort Worth had a seat at the bargaining table and that traffic didn't increase at Love Field.

The representatives said they were impressed that the airlines and city leaders could come together on an agreement.

The law limits nonstop flights from Dallas Love Field to cities in Texas and eight nearby states.

But the agreement calls for the law to be fully repealed after eight years and caps Love Field at 20 gates. It also allows immediate through-ticketing at the 32-gate airport and creates a penalty if Southwest or American start up service at any airport besides D/FW Airport or Love Field within 80 miles.

Love, which has some of the lowest landing fees in the country, would also raise its rates to pay for a terminal upgrade to the tune of $150 million to $200 million.

But for all of that to happen, Congress first needs to pass the law by the end of the year. If not, the agreement becomes null and void.

Several delegates said the biggest obstacle to getting the deal turned into legislation and passed by Congress is time. Congress has 53 working days left before it adjourns for the year.

But Rep,. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, said he wouldn't let that stop him.

"We've got nothing but time to work on this," he said. "This is an important issue for North Texas, and we'll make the time available to work on it."

Barton added that he thinks "there's a possibility" that the bill will pass. But he stopped short of any guarantees.

"Passing anything in the Congress is always doubtful," Barton said.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, said she's excited about the prospects the agreement creates.

"None of us made the decision tonight whether we were in support or not," she said. "What we were there for was to ask a lot of questions because this took weeks, if not months, to put together."

Barton said the delegation is comforted by the fact that the airlines and the two cities support the agreement.

He said Congress would have to really pause if it were to substantively alter the agreement as it goes through the legislative process. Even if Congress changes the agreement, the deal would hold the airlines to what they've agreed to with the penalty of giving up gates.

Other participants in the briefing included Southwest Chairman Herb Kelleher, D/FW Airport Chief Executive Jeff Fegan, D/FW Chief Operating Officer Kevin Cox, D/FW Board Chairman Jan Collmer, Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce President Bill Thornton, former Fort Worth Mayor Bob Bolen and former TXU Corp. Chief Executive Erle Nye.

Other representatives who attended were Sam Johnson, R-Plano, who co-sponsored a repeal bill with Hensarling; Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell; and Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall.

Moncrief said after the meeting that he was not disappointed with how the agreement was received by the delegates.

"It was appreciative of all of our efforts," he said. "They, too, find it hard to believe they're sitting at the table with both airlines: Herb Kelleher and Gerard Arpey sitting side by side."

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