Omaha Airport Meeting to Explore Dallas Service

Mar. 20--The battle over whether Dallas Love Field should be opened to more air traffic moves to Omaha Tuesday.

Two Dallas-based airlines with opposing interests -- American and Southwest -- will go nose to nose in presentations on the Wright Amendment, a 1979 federal law that prohibits nonstop flights between Love Field and all but a handful of states.

The Wright Amendment was created by Texas Sen. Jim Wright to protect then-new Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and initially allowed Love Field flights to serve only cities in Texas and surrounding states.

The presentations will take place during the regular monthly meeting of the Omaha Airport Authority board. The 9 a.m. meeting is open to the public and will take place in the board room on the second floor of the Eppley Airfield terminal.

American Airlines officials have been making Wright Amendment presentations throughout their network of cities, said spokesman Dave Jackson. Tuesday's visit was scheduled because Nebraska often is mentioned as a state that could be affected by changes in the law, he said.

"It seems to be a battleground state," Jackson said.

The Omaha Airport Authority board has urged Nebraska's congressional delegation to push for repeal, said Executive Director Don Smithey. Sen. Ben Nelson has said he would vote to repeal the law. The rest of the delegation is co-sponsoring legislation that would remove the restrictions.

The focus of Wright Amendment discussions shifted recently from the federal level to local government. The Dallas and Fort Worth City Councils passed joint resolutions asking that Congress delay action a few months while a local proposal is developed.

As one of the top 10 origin or destination cities for Eppley, air service to Dallas is critical, Smithey said, and competition likely would lower fares. American is the only carrier now providing nonstop flights from Omaha to Dallas.

Other carriers provide connecting service from Omaha to DFW, but the Wright Amendment prohibits through ticketing and baggage service for connecting service to Love Field.

Smithey said research by his staff indicates passengers pay hundreds of dollars more per ticket to fly nonstop from Omaha to Dallas than if they flew from Kansas City, Mo., where American and Southwest both provide nonstop flights.

"It's very important to the citizens of Omaha to have the same opportunity to select the fares that they choose, not what Congress is mandating," he said. "We are in a deregulated industry. Let's let the free market determine the level of fares as is done in every other market in the United States."

Over the years, amendments have exempted other states, including Missouri just last year. In December, after the Missouri exemption took effect, Southwest established nonstop flights between Love Field and St. Louis and Kansas City. American followed by re-establishing operations March 1 at Love Field to serve those cities.

The move was a reluctant one, Jackson said, because American's business model is based on the hub-and-spoke system. Shifting aircraft away from the DFW hub to provide flights at Love Field cuts into the number of DFW flights and reduces air service to smaller cities, he said.

American, the nation's largest airline in terms of revenue per passenger mile, moved its corporate headquarters to Dallas in 1979.

"Airline competition is good, and airport competition is bad," he said. "If the Wright Amendment is relaxed, we will have to compete at Love Field, and we'll have to reduce flights at DFW. . . . It's something we will be forced to do."

Southwest could have the competition it seeks, he said, by moving operations to DFW, an airport that was designed to serve as the Dallas-Fort Worth area's only airport.

"The Wright Amendment was the compromise," he said. "We think that the Wright Amendment should stay exactly as it is."

Southwest, which was founded at Love Field in 1971 as a regional carrier, renewed efforts in 2004 to repeal the law.

Now the nation's fourth-largest carrier, Southwest found success over the years with a low-cost business model that focused on smaller, less-expensive airports that are closer to metropolitan centers.

That business model would be threatened, airline officials have said, if the airline tried to split operations between DFW and Love Field. Southwest would have to spend millions of dollars at DFW to create the infrastructure it already has at Love Field, where it operates about 120 flights a day.

Flying to DFW Airport also costs more per passenger than flying to Love Field, Chief Executive Gary Kelly has noted. The higher expenses and infrastructure costs would mean higher airfares, he said.

"We want to serve Love Field. It's efficient, it's here, it's our home base, and it fits us perfectly," he said. "Most businesses have the right to choose where they operate. I don't know why it would be any different for an airline."

Southwest -- whose ticker symbol is LUV -- also has said it would face a daunting task starting operations at DFW, where American operates about 900 flights a day.

Other airlines, such as America West, also have declined incentive packages to take over unused gates at DFW because of the size of American's operations there.

Herb Kelleher, Southwest's chairman, said, "The invitation to go to DFW Airport is like the spider saying to the fly, 'Why don't you drop in for a bite to eat?'"