Southwest Airlines says St. Louis' Lambert Field isn't living up to its full potential.
Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly wants to help by adding more flights. But first the low-cost airline needs to repeal a federal law that restricts the airline's flights out of its home base at Dallas Love Field.
"St. Louis hasn't fully realized the benefit of the free market," Kelly told the Post-Dispatch Thursday in an interview. "It's remarkably connected to the rest of the country, except on Southwest Airlines because we're still restricted."
St. Louis stands to gain more than any other city if the Wright Amendment is repealed, Kelly said. The 1979 federal law largely prevents Southwest from operating non-stop flights on its 737s from Love Field to most U.S. cities. But thanks to legislation championed last year by Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., Missouri has been exempted from the restriction.
Southwest began offering flights between Love and Lambert in December. American Airlines, which strongly opposes repeal of the Wright Amendment, also offers flights on that route.
American, though, would have preferred to keep the traffic exclusively flowing through its megahub at nearby Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport. Southwest could fly out of Dallas-Forth Worth, but won't compete against American on its turf.
The competition on the St. Louis-Dallas route has been good for consumers. Ticket prices have dropped dramatically since the addition of the Love Field flights by both airlines.
Southwest says its daily flights between Lambert and Love Field are carrying about 9,000 passengers each way per month. Meanwhile, Kelly and Southwest would like to fly unfettered from Love Field to the rest of the country.
Ray Neidl, an airline analyst at Calyon Securities, said he isn't convinced St. Louis would benefit any more than it already has with the exemption of Missouri from the Wright Amendment.
"I can't see how it would help St. Louis that much," Neidl said.
Kelly said Congress has asked Forth Worth and Dallas to come up with a joint recommendation on how to resolve the Wright Amendment issue. "They don't want the Missouri example to continue, where one state gets (exempted) one at a time," he said.
American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said her airline opposes any move by Southwest to eliminate the so-called "through ticketing" provision of the Wright Amendment. Southwest can't offer or advertise the availability of flights between Love Field and any city outside the nine states in the Wright Amendment service area.
While in St. Louis, Kelly met with Lambert Airport Director Kevin Dolliole and spoke to officials at the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association.
Southwest isn't happy about its increased operating costs at Lambert. Southwest and American, two of the airport's biggest sources of revenue, see the $1.1 billion price tag of Lambert's new runway in their operating costs.
Kelly said he doesn't want to sound like he's complaining. He expressed confidence that Dolliole and his staff will keep costs stable.
Besides, he said, the new runway, good on-time numbers, unused capacity and a central location are what make Lambert an attractive airport for Southwest to build traffic. The market also improved in the view of Southwest when American, in late 2003, reduced its schedule by some 200 daily flights.
For now, Kelly said Southwest has made no detailed plans or projections for St. Louis.
"More than any other location St. Louis stands to gain a lot by flowing passengers through here," Kelly said. "We're a point-to-point carrier. And about 80 percent of our customers fly nonstop."
Repeal of the Wright Amendment would boost traffic within the overall Southwest system.
"If we have more passengers that get onboard a Baltimore flight coming to St. Louis that's flowing through to Dallas, then we're going to add more St. Louis to Baltimore flights," he said. "It has a very dramatic effect. It's only good."
The law needs to be signed by Bush, which is expected to happen in the next several days.
The Omaha Airport Authority board has urged Nebraska's congressional delegation to push for repeal.
Southwest has said it would launch nonstops from Love to those two cities if changes to the Wright Amendment make it possible.
The trip was the first commercial nonstop flight in Southwest's history from Love beyond the original boundaries of the Wright Amendment.