Rest of Nation Has Plenty to Say in Wright Debate

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.

The airport shares American's support of Wright. D/FW and American agree that the positions of other U.S. airports and cities aren't influencing North Texas officials searching for a solution.

Pulling for Southwest

Mr. Smithey, the Omaha airport executive, believes that Southwest would add three daily nonstop flights to Love Field and that airfares to Dallas would drop at least 45 percent.

Currently, a mid-week round-trip fare with a seven-day advance purchase is $781.10, according to American's Web site. Mr. Smithey estimates travelers would save about $20 million annually if fares to Dallas dropped on the route, which is now 84 percent controlled by American.

Mr. Smithey notes that airfares dropped by similar amounts when Southwest began adding service to Omaha in 1995, eventually linking the Nebraska city with Chicago, Las Vegas, Phoenix and St. Louis. Today, Southwest controls 63 percent of the market to Chicago, which is Omaha's No. 1 destination, and 72 percent of traffic to No. 3 Las Vegas.

The airport executive argues Omaha's economy could easily support three Southwest flights to Love. He said the city has a low jobless rate of 3 percent and is home to a diverse group of corporate headquarters in banking, agriculture, manufacturing and transportation.

"It would generate traffic," said Mr. Smithey, predicting the effect of Southwest service.

Similarly, Kevin Dillon, airport director in Manchester, N.H., recently visited the Dallas corporate headquarters of his largest tenant -- Southwest. To get there, he flew on Southwest from Manchester to Baltimore, where he caught a flight to Houston and then a final connection to Love Field.

"I can tell you that was not a fun trip. I spent all day in the air for a one-day meeting," he said.

Mr. Dillon acknowledges he could have flown Delta Air Lines, with a connection through Atlanta. But he was unhappy with the schedule and fares -- as high as $1,019 for a mid-week trip, according to Delta's Web site.

A similar mid-week round trip from Manchester to Houston on Southwest is $582.

Airfares also dropped when Southwest started flying to Manchester in 1998. Before Southwest, one-way fares to Baltimore were $181; today they are about $90 and as low as $39.

Mr. Dillon hopes Southwest might add one daily flight from Manchester to Love Field if the Wright amendment is repealed. But he is more hopeful a change in the law would simply lead to easier connections, allowing travelers to connect in Baltimore with long-haul flights to Love Field.

"That would give us some very, very good frequency into a major business hub that we do not have today," Mr. Dillon said.

Tennessee's take

There appear to be few places outside North Texas where the Wright amendment debate has stirred more interest than in Tennessee.

The latest repeal effort appears to have gotten its start there in September 2004, when Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., introduced legislation that would add Tennessee to the Wright perimeter.

"We were on record and working the issue before Southwest decided to do what they are doing today," said Raul Regalado, chief executive of the Nashville International Airport.

Mr. Regalado said Southwest has never promised future service in return for the airport's support. So, he was not disappointed when a Southwest-backed study failed last year to list Nashville among 15 markets it would target if the Wright amendment were lifted.

"They have not promised anything to me," said Mr. Regalado, noting Nashville would logically get Love Field flights because it is a sizable city to Southwest. "We know that we would be in the queue at some point to receive service [to Love Field] if they have the authority."

But not everyone in Tennessee has the same view. Officials at the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport and the Metropolitan Chattanooga Airport oppose long-haul flights from Love Field.

William Marrison, president of the Knoxville Airport, does not think Southwest has any interest in serving his city. "They are strictly looking at markets much larger than we are," he said.

So he opposes repeal, fearing American Eagle would cut one or more of its four flights to D/FW Airport if aircraft were sent to Love Field.

"Small airports like Knoxville might see a downgrade or less service to Dallas," said Mr. Marrison, saying he has urged the local congressional delegation to oppose repeal.

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