Wright Accord May Be Near: 9-Year Phase-Out Considered

Jun. 10--The mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth appear headed toward a compromise on the Wright amendment that could displease the two carriers that have the most at stake in the debate, American Airlines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co.

Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, e-mailing from inside a meeting with Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief on Friday, said that the negotiations on lifting flight restrictions at Love Field remain fluid and that there is still no deal.

But two Dallas officials, who declined to be identified because the terms are being closely held, said Friday that the resolution being considered by the mayors would effectively force American to accept eventual repeal of the 1979 Wright law.

It also would pressure the airline to give up its gates at Love Field, they said.

The resolution would call for a phase-out of Wright over nine years, reducing the immediate impact on American's operation at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the officials said.

And it would cap the number of gates at Love at 20 in an effort to ease concerns about noise and traffic from additional flights at the city airport.

The measure also would immediately allow through-ticketing, officials said, which would permit passengers to fly anywhere in the U.S. on a single ticket if they first stopped in a state within the Wright perimeter.

In expectation of a Wright compromise, the Dallas City Council is tentatively scheduled to meet Wednesday at the Grand Hyatt hotel at D/FW Airport. But Ms. Miller's office stressed that the meeting will be held only if she and Mr. Moncrief reach a decision.

Any compromise that Dallas and Fort Worth reach isn't necessarily binding. The airlines could continue their appeals on Capitol Hill, regardless of what the cities propose.

The Wright law limits most commercial service from Love to a nine-state region. Dallas' deadline for reaching a compromise is Wednesday. Fort Worth's is Aug. 1.

American, which has its largest hub at D/FW, launched service at Love in March after federal law was changed to allow nonstop service from Love to Missouri. But American has been an unenthusiastic tenant at Love, saying it moved some flights there only to protect its best customers from being poached by Southwest.

Under the terms being considered, Southwest, which has sought immediate repeal of the law, could have to wait until 2015 to serve its nationwide network with nonstop flights from Love, its home airport.

However, Southwest would be allowed to sell tickets anywhere in the country immediately with the through-ticketing provision. Passengers would be able to fly anywhere in the U.S. on a single ticket if they first stopped in a "Wright" state -- for example, stopping in St. Louis on the way to Chicago, or in Houston on the way to Tampa, Fla. Currently, passengers must purchase two separate tickets to fly to those destinations from Love, diminishing potential cost savings.

In March, facing concerns that legislators in other parts of the country might seek to exempt their states from Wright, the North Texas congressional delegation asked the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth to craft a local solution.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., introduced legislation in the Senate last month that would add Nebraska to the states where long-haul flights are permissible from Love Field. The bill is identical to one introduced in the House by the state's three Republican members. Like the House proposal, Mr. Hagel's bill also includes a through-ticketing provision that would allow passengers to make connections beyond the Wright perimeter states on a single ticket.

Mr. Hagel is co-sponsor of a Senate bill introduced last year by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., that would repeal the Wright amendment.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, the lead sponsor of the House repeal proposal with Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano, said an agreement between Dallas and Fort Worth would be historic. But he already was raising doubts about the terms reported Friday.

'Very long time'

A nine-year phase-out of the Wright amendment is too long, Mr. Hensarling said.

"My immediate reaction is that nine years is a very, very long time," he said.

Mr. Hensarling also questioned whether limiting the number of gates at Love Field would leave both Southwest and American with virtual monopolies at their respective airports, reducing air-fare competition.

"If you limit the number of gates too much, then ultimately you will not help consumers," he said.

American spokesman Roger Frizzell said Friday that the Fort Worth-based carrier could not comment because it had not seen an official proposal from Dallas. But he rebuffed the idea of American leaving its three gates at Love Field.

"I can't imagine seeing American moving out of Love Field under any circumstances, short of Wright remaining fully in place," Mr. Frizzell said. "At this point, it is only rumor and speculation, so there's no real need to address this issue, but I don't believe anyone should assume we would willingly move our operation and give up our best customers to Southwest."

Southwest spokeswoman Ginger Hardage said she was waiting to see more details from the mayors.

"It's difficult to comment on rumors," Ms. Hardage said. "But the fact that there is wide acceptance that the Wright amendment is going to be repealed is a victory. ... As always, the devil is in details."

Ironing out a deal

City officials offered tentative details on the terms of a possible agreement on Friday, saying that the 20-gate cap would limit Southwest Airlines to between 15 and 18 gates. Such an agreement would make it economically unfeasible for American, with its three existing gates at Love, to operate at the airport, they said.

Any remaining gates above the limit of 20 would be closed or demolished, the officials said.

But while they agreed that Dallas and Fort Worth are close to a resolution, city officials said talks over whether Fort Worth will agree to forgo passenger service at Alliance and Meacham airports are still tangled.

"We're very close to having it resolved," Dallas City Council member Ed Oakley said, declining to give specifics on the negotiations. "Part of the sticking point is the resolution of the airports that are in Fort Worth's purview."

Many other details of the possible compromise on Wright remained unclear Friday. City officials couldn't explain how the possible phase-out would work -- particularly which states would be exempted from Wright restrictions first and who would choose them. And they didn't indicate how gates at Love could be redistributed among airlines or whether new airlines would be allowed to come in.

Mr. Moncrief, speaking after a lengthy meeting with Ms. Miller on Friday, declined to comment on the negotiations, or on Meacham and Alliance airports.

Mr. Hensarling noted that any agreement by the two cities would only be a starting point for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. His remarks underscored the inevitable negotiation that would unfold between lawmakers on both sides of the issue in both the House and Senate.

"I would certainly entertain that plan as a basis for negotiations with my colleagues in Congress," Mr. Hensarling said. "This is a starting point, not an ending point."

Staff writer Robert Dodge in Washington contributed to this report.

E-mail eramshaw@dallasnews.com and smarta@dallasnews.com

WHAT A DEAL WOULD MEAN FOR FLIERS

Here are some specifics of the possible Wright amendment compromise under review by Dallas Mayor Laura Miller and Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, according to officials who declined to be identified.

-- The Wright law would be phased out over nine years. That timeline would dampen the immediate impact on American Airlines' operation at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. It also would mean Southwest Airlines might have to wait until 2015 to serve its nationwide network with nonstop flights from Love Field.

-- The number of gates at the airport would be limited to 20. That would ease concerns about noise and traffic at Love Field. Southwest's gate total would be limited to between 15 and 18.

-- Southwest would be allowed to sell tickets anywhere in the country immediately with a "through-ticketing" provision. That means passengers could fly anywhere in the nation on a single ticket if they first stopped in a state within the Wright perimeter.

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