Dispute Continues to Snowball: Minnesota Tosses Out Ideas on Love Field Restrictions

WASHINGTON - The Lone Star debate over long-haul flights at Dallas Love Field has stirred the interest of some in the North Star state.

Though it would be hard to match the passion of North Texans in the fight over the Wright amendment, some Minnesotans have their own ideas on repealing the 1979 law.

So far, their efforts to trade support for repealing Wright haven't yielded Southwest Airlines Co. flights to faraway Duluth or Rochester or to Minneapolis, for that matter.

But interest in Minnesota illustrates how Wright isn't just a local issue for Dallas-Fort Worth. Officials in Omaha, Neb., staked out a position favoring repeal, for example, but some in Toledo, Ohio, oppose changing the law.

Much of the recent chatter in Minnesota was sparked by an editorial in The Duluth News Tribune headlined: "With a Little Love, Duluth Could Land Another Airline."

That new airline would be Dallas-based Southwest, which is leading the fight to repeal Wright. Duluth now relies on Northwest Airlines Inc. and its regional partners for the bulk of its flights.

The newspaper reported that it enlisted the help of Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., to organize other members in the state's congressional delegation to back the repeal in return for Southwest service to Duluth and Rochester.

"Favor-trading is hardly an unfamiliar concept in Congress, and it won't be long before members representing other states latch onto this idea," the newspaper reasoned. "Here's a chance for the Minnesota delegation to right that wrong while bringing a needed service to constituents."

Southwest's vantage

Southwest officials are usually coy about plans to enter markets.

They acknowledge Minneapolis would make an attractive addition to their route system but deny lobbying the Minnesota delegation with promises of flights in return for votes to repeal the Wright amendment.

The carrier is very active in the Midwest, and Chicago's Midway Airport is expected to become Southwest's biggest operation this year.

Typically, Southwest adds cities using a rigorous process based on traffic volume and, most important, potential profits.

"We were flattered by that editorial," said Ron Ricks, a Southwest senior vice president. But "our route-planning people would say that Minnesota is a little bit far off in our plans."

Landing with a thud

Indeed, the campaign ran out of steam about the time the newspaper landed on Duluth doorsteps.

"It was a most unfortunate editorial," said Rep. James Oberstar, Duluth's local congressman and the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

For the record, he is a solid supporter of American Airlines Inc. Like the Fort Worth-based carrier, he adamantly opposes repealing Wright. And he is not about to switch his loyalty, even for new flights to his state.

"I would not do it on that basis ever. It would compromise the ethics of the legislative process," Mr. Oberstar said.

Brian Ryks, executive director of the Duluth International Airport, said he would love to see Southwest start service. But he said the airline typically serves markets of more than 1 million, making it unlikely they would start flights for Duluth's 85,556 residents.

In fact, American's regional partner twice in the last five years started and then abandoned service between Duluth and Chicago.

The editorial was penned by Robin Washington, editorial page editor of The News Tribune.

Mr. Washington said he got the idea in December after Southwest's accident in Chicago prompted him to check out the carrier's Web site, where he learned about Southwest's battle against Wright.

Now he argues that residents in Minneapolis-St. Paul would gladly make the two-hour-plus drive to Duluth to take advantage of Southwest's lower fares.

"If I was in the Twin Cities and I could use Southwest, I think I might want to do it," Mr. Washington said.

For his part, Mr. Dayton declines to discuss his conversation with his local newspaper.

But spokeswoman Chani Wiggins explains the issue came up during a brainstorming session with the newspaper's staff.

She said the senator has not been lobbied by Southwest. But she said he has thought about the issue, and backing repeal of the Wright amendment would come with conditions.

"Mark would not support repeal ... without some sort of compensation or flights for Minnesota's smaller communities," Ms. Wiggins said.

Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht of Rochester wants no part in the Wright debate and said there is no campaign by lawmakers in Minnesota to bid for Southwest flights.

Like Mr. Oberstar, he counts himself among American's supporters in opposing repeal, even though the carrier dropped regional jet service between Rochester and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport earlier this month.

American's regional partner subsequently added a sixth daily flight to Chicago.

Mr. Gutknecht emphasizes that he would like to see Minnesota and other states left out of the debate: "Ultimately, this is a Texas issue. I am a little bit hesitant for people in Michigan or Minnesota to try and resolve this for the people of Texas."

That sentiment is shared by the mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth, who have asked Congress to delay action until the two cities can hammer out a compromise.

They are mindful that airports elsewhere are taking notice and lobbying their congressional delegations. After all, Missouri was added to the states where flights are permissible by a senator - Christopher "Kit" Bond - who was representing local interests.

More voices

Even Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has weighed in.

"In a deregulated industry, you wonder whether the Wright amendment hasn't passed its time," Mr. Mineta said last month during a visit to Omaha, Neb.

Mr. Mineta later said that his remarks reflected a personal view and that the Bush administration has no position on repealing the Wright amendment.

"It should be left up to Congress," Mr. Mineta recently told The Dallas Morning News.

Among airport officials closely following the debate is William Wren, who is responsible for recruiting airlines to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Mr. Wren predicts Southwest will come to Minneapolis eventually - even if it has to go toe-to-toe against a hometown carrier that carries 80 percent of the airport's nearly 38 million passengers annually.

Southwest has taken on established carriers before, such as its recent surprise entry into Denver, where it is competing directly with United Airlines Inc.

Southwest officials have thoroughly studied the Minneapolis airport, monitoring the development of a new runaway, watching construction of a terminal and tracking how long it takes to get to the airport from various points in a metropolitan area that is home to 2.9 million people.

"They have come up here and measured everything, you bet they have," said Mr. Wren, who said the meetings occur about twice a year. "And they have done it on more than one occasion."

Even so, Southwest officials still remember when they challenged Northwest at its big hub in Detroit, and price slashing drove fares down to $9.

With that in mind, the airline might bide its time, watching for an opportune moment, such as a possible strike by Northwest's pilots.

"We go to a city to be a successful operation," said Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart. "When you start service on Monday, you expect to be profitable by Tuesday."

E-mail rdodge@dallasnews.com

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