Several Dallas City Council members, including Mayor Laura Miller, say they are surprised and upset that Dallas Love Field has been dipping into its reserves to pay off deficits.
Now they want answers.
Airport officials say they are trying to cut costs and raise revenues, looking at everything from parking rates to landing fees.
On Wednesday, council members Mitchell Rasansky and Angela Hunt sent a joint memo to City Manager Mary Suhm asking for a full council briefing "as soon as possible in January."
Hunt said she has also asked the city auditor's office to examine how the airport handles its money.
"I think we have to take a really close look at the way Love Field is operating financially," she said. "It really concerns me that we are operating at a deficit."
The city's Aviation Department is responsible for two airports: Love Field, which handles commercial and general aviation on 1,300 acres just north of downtown, and Dallas Executive Airport, which handles general aviation on 1,040 acres in the southwest corner of town.
But as the recently expanded Executive Airport continues a transition to new business, almost all the department's revenues and expenses lately have come from Love Field.
The Aviation Department has built up about $46 million in reserves, which airport officials say is primarily available for emergencies and long-term capital projects.
But for each of the past five years, the department has budgeted for deficits between $1.5 million and $5 million. That adds up to $15.7 million in budgeted deficits since the 2002 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1 of the previous year.
For two of those years, 2003 and 2004, budgeted losses of $2 million and $1.7 million, respectively, turned out to be surpluses of $2.8 and $2.9 million. Ryan Evans, the assistant city manager who oversees the department, said the department periodically dips into reserves to cover deficits.
Actual figures for the 2005 fiscal year are not available, but the deficit is estimated to be only $2.9 million rather than the $3.7 million loss that was budgeted.
For the 2006 fiscal year, the department has budgeted $30.3 million in revenue and $33.3 million in expenses -- a shortfall of $3 million.
In the end, it all leads to a $5.2 million loss at this point.
Evans attributes the shortfall primarily to passenger traffic levels, which are still down 18 percent since 2000, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Miller said it's unacceptable to use the reserve fund to pay annual expenses.
"I think it's a surprise to the City Council that we were doing that," she said. "There's no business in America that wants to operate by dipping into its reserves."
Evans agrees that the airport needs to get out of the red.
"If we're going to continue to eat $3 to $4 million in cash, we ought to be looking at ways to help that," he said. "I'm looking at all of our revenues, including landing fees."
But Miller said she doesn't buy the argument that Love Field is still hurt by the slowdown after the 9-11 attacks.
"Other airports around the country dealt with that blow and moved back into the black, and that's what we need to do now," she said.
Ed Stewart, spokesman for Southwest Airlines, said Love Field's financial problems could be eased by repealing the Wright Amendment, which restricts commercial long-haul flights from Love Field to nine states. On Wednesday, Missouri became the latest to be exempted.
Increased landing fees are not unusual, he said."You do that with airports all across the country," he said. "That's on a continuous basis."
Between 2001 and 2003, Love Field boosted fees for parking, terminal rent and ground leases. But landing fees have gone untouched for some time.
The airport, which charges 35 cents per 1,000 pounds landed, is talking to executives for two of its tenants, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines and Houston-based Continental Airlines, about raising landing fees. By comparison, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport charges $4.94 per 1,000 pounds.
Dallas Love Field is raising the landing fee for the first time since 1987 in hopes of pulling the airport out of the red.
Officials for North America's 59th-busiest airport plan to raise its landing fees in order to end losses of $16.5 million that date back to 2001.
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