Senators grilled executives of American Airlines and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport about the need for a federal law restricting flights from a nearby airport that is home to rival Southwest Airlines Co.
A Senate subcommittee heard testimony on the 1979 Wright Amendment, which limits flights from Dallas Love Field to Texas and seven nearby states.
Southwest wants Congress to repeal the law, saying that would lead to lower fares for consumers. But American and DFW Airport favor keeping it, saying that expanding Love Field would undermine DFW and cost thousands of jobs.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Ensign, R-Nev., asked American and DFW officials why DFW couldn't coexist with much smaller Love Field if both are allowed to operate long-haul flights.
"Why can't DFW compete like San Francisco does with Oakland, like Miami does with Fort Lauderdale, and like Chicago O'Hare does with Midway?" Ensign asked.
Gerard Arpey, chairman and CEO of American and its parent, AMR Corp., and DFW Airport Chief Operating Officer Kevin Cox said DFW and Love Field are much closer together than those other airport pairs.
Arpey said his airline invested billions of dollars in DFW on the assumption that the Wright Amendment would last forever. Arpey and Cox said local officials decided decades ago it would be best for the regional economy to close Love Field and operate a single strong airport.
Longtime Southwest CEO and current chairman Herb Kelleher disputed that, saying the Wright Amendment passed only because it was sponsored by Jim Wright, a Fort Worth Democrat who was then the House majority leader.
"It wasn't a matter of public policy; it was a matter of political power," Kelleher said.
Ensign seemed angered that Arpey and Cox kept bringing up the past in saying that Southwest should never have started operating at Love Field and instead moved to DFW.
"That's past history," Ensign said. "Southwest Airlines won that argument in the courts."
Several court decisions over the years backed up Southwest's legal right to fly from Love Field.
After years of living with the Wright Amendment, Southwest last year began lobbying for its repeal. DFW and its main carrier, American, say that would undermine the bigger airport located between the two North Texas cities. A consultant hired by DFW says 268,000 jobs depend on the big airport.
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee, opened the hearing acknowledging that local issues are involved but saying the outcome "will actually affect our entire aviation system." He said the dispute should be considered in connection with Congress' reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, scheduled for 2007.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said the Wright Amendment actually opened up Love Field for use rather than put in restrictions. The issue is a local one and "local community leaders should be the ones to come up" with a resolution.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., was critical of Southwest's effort to repeal the law.
"If they want to monopolize the entire airline industry, they have the opportunity to do that by going to DFW," said Inhofe, adding that American is the eighth-largest employer in his state.
The hearing was scheduled after Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., attached a measure to a transportation spending bill that would exempt his state from the Wright Amendment.
The Senate approved the spending bill, but the House version does not include the Missouri exemption. Negotiators who will broker a compromise transportation bill will decide whether it is included in a final bill.
Southwest's campaign could run into trouble in the House, where Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, has been a staunch supporter of American's position on the Wright Amendment. Barton chairs a committee that controls transportation legislation.
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