DALLAS -- Landing fees are going up at Dallas Love Field for the first time since 1987, in hopes of pulling the airport out of the red.
The airport has posted a surplus only two times since 2001 and is on track to run a deficit for 2005 and 2006.
The fee increase comes more than two months after several Dallas City Council members told the Star-Telegram that they were surprised and upset to hear that the continent's 59th-busiest airport has been dipping into its reserves to pay off deficits.
The council voted 12-3 Wednesday to raise the landing fee to 55 cents per 1,000 pounds, from 35 cents. For the airport, it means $951,597 annually in extra revenue.
It was one of the last possible fees that the airport could raise in hopes of breaking even. Over the past few years, the airport has boosted rates for concessions, land leases and parking, as the number of flights has declined.
Discussion on Wednesday's matter lasted for more than 40 minutes, with some council members charging that Southwest Airlines, which operates more than 90 percent of the airport's flights, gets a sweetheart deal. Others said they don't want to raise the rates unnecessarily and upset one of the city's largest taxpayers.
The renewed debate over the Wright Amendment -- the federal law that limits most commercial flights at Love to Texas and several surrounding states -- has served as a backdrop to the landing-fee arguments. Although Wright Amendment critics say the law limits competition in the North Texas aviation market, its defenders counter that Southwest's turf at Love is protected too much. They argue that Southwest, instead of trying to get the Wright Amendment overturned, should compete at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, which is dominated by Fort Worth's American Airlines.
The increase in landing fees won't have much of an effect on airfares, officials from Southwest and American, which is scheduled to launch daily service at Love on March 2, say. But that could change, said Ed Stewart, a Southwest spokesman.
"We will make every attempt to not raise fares," said Stewart, who estimated that the increase will cost the discount carrier an additional $1 million annually. "But I can't give any firm commitments."
American said the landing-fee increase was minimal and estimated that the increases break down to an additional 20 cents per passenger.
Both airlines, which are the two largest at the 32-gate airport, called the fee increase a fair one.
Mitchell Rasansky was one of the three council members who voted against the increase. He thinks it should be higher.
"I have a big problem with this," he said at the council meeting. "I think Southwest needs to step up to the plate and pay what comparable airlines are paying in other cities. We can't have the citizens of Dallas keep subsidizing Southwest Airlines."
Love Field is considered to have some of the country's cheapest landing fees. The average landing fee for similar midsized airports is $1.40, according to the city's Aviation Department, which runs Love.
By comparison, the much larger D/FW Airport charges a landing fee of $4.94. Landing fees constitute D/FW's largest revenue source. At Love Field, they're the fourth-largest.
Pat White, co-chairwoman of the Love Field Citizens Action Committee, wants to see the trend go the other way. She sent a letter Wednesday to the inspector general's office of the Transportation Department, suggesting that it might want to investigate whether Love is subsidizing Southwest.
The committee has fallen on the side of D/FW Airport and American in supporting the Wright Amendment.
The amendment was hardly brought up at Wednesday's council meeting. Councilman James Fantroy asked Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans how the Wright Amendment affects landing fees.
"These landing fees are primarily derived based on the cost of doing business at Love Field," Evans said.
Angela Hunt, another council member who voted against the 55-cent rate, offered a counterproposal to raise the landing fee to $1.40.
That measure was shot down by a count of 12-3, split the same way as the 55-cent vote. Councilwoman Pauline Medrano joined Hunt and Rasansky in voting against the 55-cent measure and for the $1.40 rate.
Mayor Laura Miller said before the two votes that although it's important to raise the rates, jumping up to $1.40 would be "extremely high" and ill-advised.
Southwest's Stewart said that any more of an increase would be punitive and his airline would have fought it.
In about three months, the council expects to hear a more detailed report from the Aviation Department on the fees that Love charges, including ground leases and concession fees. The council may consider raising landing fees again at that time.
Councilman Ed Oakley just hopes that Southwest doesn't get the wrong message and move service elsewhere.
"I don't want to bash Southwest Airlines," Oakley said. "They're a huge employer. They're a big tax payer. ...This debate about jacking the fees up to something that matches an airport in Anchorage or somewhere else is not apples to apples."
When all of the airport charges are considered -- including landing fees, gate rentals and apron fees -- Love Field is still one of cheapest, according to published government figures obtained by the Star-Telegram.
Denver International Airport is near the top at $13.05 per passenger. D/FW ranks 13 spots down at $8.30. And Love comes in near the bottom at $1.51.
"We're fully aware the fees are low here, but more than enough cover the cost of operating Love Field," Southwest's Stewart said. "More than enough."
The landing-fee vote came as pressure intensified on local officials in North Texas to come up with a solution to the Wright Amendment furor, to avert possible congressional action.
As part of her campaign to ratchet up local political activity on the Wright Amendment, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, met for an hour Wednesday in Dallas with Miller, after speaking with Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief on Friday.
"The senator is trying to continue to foster discussion" on the Wright Amendment, said Chris Paulitz, Hutchison's spokesman. "The meeting was very productive. They are continuing to discuss this so Congress doesn't intervene without local community input."
To avoid the constant threat of state-by-state exemptions -- a tactic favored by Southwest -- Hutchison has been putting pressure on local officials to come to terms.
Although there has been some discussion in political circles of a regional airport board to bring both airports under the same controlling authority, Paulitz said Hutchison's effort is more general at this time.
Star-Telegram Washington correspondent Maria Recio contributed to this report.
IN THE KNOW
Here is a list of airports comparable in size to Dallas Love Field with their landing weight charge per 1,000 pounds in 2003, the most recent figures available from the Dallas Aviation Department:
Southwest Florida International; Fort Myers, Fla.; $0.67
San Antonio International; San Antonio; $0.95
Kansas City International; Kansas City, Mo.; $1.10
Austin-Bergstrom International; Austin; $2.73
SOURCE: Dallas Aviation Department
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