Rest of Nation Has Plenty to Say in Wright Debate

Airports across the nation are joining the debate. Some are arguing that repeal will add flights, but others fear losing service to hubs.

Feb. 28--WASHINGTON -- The debate over whether to allow long-haul flights from Dallas Love Field may seem like a local issue to many North Texans, but that's not how it looks from Omaha.

"I view it as a national issue for the rest of the country," said Don Smithey, executive director of the Omaha Airport Authority.

Across the nation, airports and communities have been taking sides in the fight between Southwest Airlines and American Airlines over whether to overturn the Wright amendment.

For those allied with Southwest, repeal represents the ticket to improved connections to Dallas, meaning more flights, lower airfares and a potential boost to their economies. But others backing American say repeal threatens their vital national and global connections at hubs at Dallas/Fort Worth International and Chicago O'Hare International airports.

At Toledo Express Airport in Ohio, officials believe they were stung by the move to lift flight restrictions at Love Field when they failed to win restoration of a daily American Eagle round trip to D/FW that had been cut.

"This is a result of the incremental repeal of the Wright amendment," said Brian Schwartz, spokesman for the Toledo airport.

Interest from these communities is helping fuel talks between the mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth, as well as members of the North Texas congressional delegation.

Local officials are mindful that some lawmakers may seek to emulate Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., who pushed through language last fall that made Missouri the ninth state that can be served from Love. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., unsuccessfully tried a similar tactic.

Missouri's entry into the Wright perimeter ignited a fare war between American and Southwest on flights from North Texas to St. Louis and Kansas City.

Wanting to keep it local

North Texas officials are hoping to retain local control over the issue and shape a compromise before their colleagues on Capitol Hill step in.

Local officials "see that the opportunity for North Texas to control this could move away quickly," said Cal Jillson, a political expert at Southern Methodist University. "There is nothing that focuses your attention like being hung in the morning."

Southwest has the momentum, said spokesman Ed Stewart, noting that legislation is pending in the House and Senate and that the mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth are talking about a solution.

Some lawmakers want to push ahead with repeal efforts rather than wait for a local compromise.

"If a local solution could be reached, it would have been reached by now," said Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, where Southwest operates a Phoenix hub.

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., wants to see nonstop flights from Southern California to Love Field. "I am not sure if the locals can come up with a solution that satisfies House members," he said.

But American officials contend Southwest's Capitol Hill lobbying campaign has lost altitude. The repeal bill in the Senate has nine co-sponsors, and the one in the House has 45.

"That is not a juggernaut," American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said. "Every day, we see more airport directors, chambers of commerce and mayors saying the Wright amendment is the right thing."

American's civic supporters echo the arguments of the world's largest carrier that the 1979 Wright law was the compromise and should remain intact.

American's supporters include Texas communities and airports that have connected through D/FW, and Midwestern locales that are served from O'Hare. They fear losing flights to those hubs if aircraft are redeployed to Love Field. The American list also includes chambers of commerce and nonprofit associations.

"Those who think they would be winners are for repeal. And those who think they would be losers are against it," said Jeff Fegan, chief executive of D/FW.

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