Wright Sides Showing Little Sign of Compromise

Although several lawmakers in Washington, including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, would like to see North Texans work out a compromise to the Wright Amendment dispute, most key local leaders appear unwilling to budge from their positions.

With the exception of Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, other Dallas/Fort Worth Airport board members and American Airlines officials say that the Wright Amendment should stay in place and that they have no interest in negotiating any changes.

"Do I favor, as a member of the D/FW board, a compromise? I think the Wright Amendment was the compromise," Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief said.

At Southwest Airlines, although founder Herb Kelleher gave a Senate subcommittee his "public pledge" Thursday to work out a solution, details of any potential compromise remain fuzzy.

"We have not assembled a list of requirements and don't know what a compromise would look like," said Merilee McInnis, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Southwest. "We're still pushing for full repeal."

The Wright Amendment, which restricts commercial long-haul flights from Dallas Love Field to seven other states, was the subject of a Senate hearing Thursday. Bills to repeal the law have been introduced in the House and Senate. But key Texas legislators, including Reps. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, and Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, are leading a political defense of the law.

Some minor changes may be coming soon. House and Senate conferees have agreed to a provision from Sen. Kit Bond, R.-Mo., that adds his state to the eight that are exempted from the law, which could lead to passenger flights from Love Field to St. Louis and Kansas City.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who led the hearing, predicted that any action on the law would occur "next year at the earliest" and said he would work within the time frame of a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, set for 2007.

In Dallas, Mayor Miller suggested in a telephone interview that the law be phased out over time.

"I don't want it to disappear overnight," said Miller, who didn't offer a timetable for repealing the law. "I believe that if we just say the Wright Amendment is going to stay here forever, then Southwest won't keep its headquarters in Dallas. If I were them, I wouldn't either, because they can't grow here."

Southwest has said several times that it might move if the law isn't repealed.

Miller suggested tearing down the empty six-gate terminal formerly used by Legend Airlines and capping Love Field's capacity at 26 gates.

"We have to guarantee that Love Field won't grow," she said. "From Fort Worth's perspective, the biggest fear is that Love Field grows."

Miller also wants flights to be spread across three airports: D/FW, Love Field and Dallas Executive Airport in south Dallas, which Miller says is ready to take Love Field's general-aviation flights after undergoing almost $10 million in renovations.

But in order to cap Love Field's size, Miller said Southwest would have to "loosen its monopoly on the rest of its gates."

Southwest operates 14 gates and leases space for seven undeveloped gates. Continental flies out of two leased gates and American doesn't use any of its three leased gates.

American, on the other hand, won't say whether Love Field should cap its size.

"It's really too early to speculate on what would happen to the facilities if the Wright Amendment were repealed," said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American.

Terry Mitchell, assistant director of operations at Love Field, said he doesn't disagree with Miller, but he said it could be hard to get approval from the FAA to limit capacity after Love Field has already proved that it could handle enough traffic for 32 gates.

"You can't just arbitrarily do it," he said. "If you want to go back and restrict it, then you really must have a strong case for doing it."

Miller said she first sided with the rest of the D/FW board in support of the law because she didn't want to argue with Fort Worth after many contentious years between the two cities.

But after talking with Southwest and American officials and reading several studies, Miller is believed to be the only one on the board extending the olive branch for compromise. But it's nothing new to her.

In early October, Miller was on an island speaking against D/FW's pro-Wright advertising plan, calling it an "on-property, public blitz campaign."

"I don't blame the rest of the board members because they're fiduciaries of the airport," she said.

Other board members from Fort Worth and Dallas said they don't want compromise beyond the Wright Amendment.

"That was the deal that we were supposed to stick to," said Ben Muro, a D/FW board member from Dallas. "I don't see how we can come up with other promises and agreements at this time because we've already had the Wright Amendment, and that's where it needs to stay."

Santiago Salinas, D/FW board secretary and a self-described "worry wart" of D/FW's $3.7 billion debt, said he just wants to see the airport pay its bills. He fears that a repeal would divert some American flights to Love Field and cause D/FW's revenue to plummet.

"I'll tell you compromise -- if the city of Dallas signs up and says, 'We'll assure the debt,' or the federal government says, 'We'll take care of the debt,' then I have no problem," Salinas said. "Then they can do whatever they want."

Fort Worth Star Telegram

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