Congress Agrees to Exempt Missouri from Wright

WASHINGTON -- Missouri travelers will soon be freed from one of the last vestiges of federal airline regulation, with the result expected to be more flights to Dallas at lower prices.

Congress agreed Friday to exempt Missouri from a federal law that prevents direct commercial flights between Love Field in Dallas and most of the country.

Low-cost giant Southwest Airlines is the only major airline based at Love Field. Southwest is Kansas City's largest carrier, with 61 flights daily to 20 cities, and has a growing presence in St. Louis.

"It's an opportunity," said Sen. Kit Bond, the Missouri Republican who led the effort for the state's exemption from the law, known as the Wright amendment. "We are a state without any hub airlines. We've got enough traffic, enough business, that we need better service."

A spokesman for Southwest said the airline would start service between Dallas and its Missouri markets "post-haste."

American Airlines, the dominant carrier into Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, opposed changing the law. The airline would consider flying to Missouri out of Love Field to try to retain its customers who might prefer Love Field's convenience, said Tim Wagner, an American Airlines spokesman.

American officials met with Love Field officials Friday to discuss the possibilities, Wagner said. The airline has three unused gates there.

That all translates into a victory for consumers in Missouri as the "Southwest effect" of lower prices in markets where Southwest competes will now include the heavily traveled Kansas City-Dallas and St. Louis-Dallas corridors.

For example, last year, there were about 277,000 passengers who flew between Kansas City and Dallas without connecting to other cities, according to statistics from Kansas City International Airport.

The average fare of all carriers between Dallas and Kansas City is $158, according to KCI statistics. The average fare between KCI and Indianapolis, a comparable distance that Southwest flies, was 50 percent lower.

"It should decrease fares dramatically," said Mark VanLoh, director of the Kansas City Aviation Department. "That's what Southwest does when it enters a market. Anytime we get competition, it's beneficial for our travelers. Dallas is one of our top cities. We get a lot of business travel to Dallas."

The Wright amendment, named for its author, former congressman James Wright of Texas, was passed in 1979 to help then-fledgling DFW. It limited flights on full-size jets in and out of Love Field to destinations in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. In 1997, the law was modified to allow flights between Love Field and Kansas, Mississippi and Alabama.

The amendment also prevents Southwest from informing customers that they could make such trips by buying two separate tickets, say from Baltimore to Tulsa and then Tulsa to Dallas.

Southwest mounted a massive lobbying and public relations effort this year to repeal the Wright amendment, calling it anti-competitive and unfair.

Airline executives found a ready listener in Bond, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that controls transportation spending. Bond inserted language into the bill last summer that exempted Missouri from the law.

The House and Senate passed into law the $137.6 billion spending bill Friday. It needs to be signed by Bush, which is expected to happen in the next several days. Bond, who led Senate negotiators on the bill, said Congress had compromised with the White House on any matters that might have spurred a presidential veto.

But for all of the political fireworks, many travelers from Dallas had a lukewarm reaction to the revised Wright amendment.

"If Southwest was flying out of DFW, I might fly them," said Dallas resident Mark Caples, who lives seven miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. "But the frequency of American Airline flights is stronger. They own that market."

Caroline Sullivan of Austin, Texas, said she would welcome the competition.

"It opens more avenues for us to travel," she said. "Southwest generally offers decent bargains, and it would give us more flexibility and possibly drive down prices."

Mike McGarry, vice president of marketing for Short's Travel Management in Overland Park, agreed that the impact of repealing the Wright amendment in Missouri or elsewhere is limited.

"In most big cities that have a second or third airport operating, all the major carriers don't flock to the airport with the lower cost structure," he said. "This gets more attention because it's in Texas, and a lot of issues there seem to get overblown."

While repeal of the Wright amendment in Missouri will benefit the state, one analyst said that American won't be entirely unhappy with the result. Even with the exemptions, 85 percent of the country continues to fall under its flight and marketing restrictions.

"It doesn't address the wider problem of the Wright amendment and the all other states that don't get nonstop service," said Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm.

Boyd said Friday's action is likely to mean that Missouri politicians probably won't back a more widespread effort to entirely eliminate the Wright amendment:

"This is a smart tactical move by American. They have to lower their Dallas fares to St. Louis and Kansas City, but so what? They get to keep the Wright Amendment for all the other states."

But Bond has already said he will next year's appropriations bill to further emasculate the Wright amendment if Congress does not take further action before then. That action is under way through a Senate Commerce Committee hearing earlier this month

"They know we're looking at them," Bond said. "It depends on whether they're taking action or making a good-faith effort to take action."

Kansas City Star

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