Southwest Airlines intensified its drive to repeal the Wright Amendment on Tuesday, releasing a petition with 215,000 signatures from Texas voters and announcing that legendary co-founder and Chairman Herb Kelleher will testify before Congress on the issue.
Executives with the Dallas-based airline also hinted again to reporters that they might eventually move the company's headquarters to another city if the amendment fails to be eliminated.
But rival American Airlines, headquartered in Fort Worth, quickly condemned Southwest's actions, dubbing the petition drive a "PR stunt" and ridiculing the number of signatures the airline collected.
"It's 1 percent of the Texas population," said Dan Garton, American's executive vice president of marketing. "The number just doesn't seem that big, given the resources Southwest put into getting these signatures."
It was a day of intense sniping between the two major airlines that call North Texas home. In addition to attacking the petition drive, American executives released a report from a paid consultant critical of a Wright Amendment study that had been commissioned by Southwest earlier this year.
Southwest executives, meanwhile, accused American officials of bullying small cities by threatening to eliminate service if the Wright Amendment is lifted.
They also declared that American is their "primary rival" in the battle and that other pro-Wright groups like Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and the North Texas Commission are acting as proxies for the airline, which is the world's largest carrier.
"American is using its size and its power to intimidate and threaten," said Ron Ricks, Southwest's senior vice president for law, airports and public affairs. He added that an advertising campaign sponsored by D/FW Airport, which invites Southwest to begin long-haul service at that airport, is "completely disingenuous."
"D/FW has been doing everything it can for years to block Southwest's success," he said, by challenging the airline's bids to fly longer flights from Love Field.
Even the airlines' unions got into the act. The three labor groups that represent American employees released a statement denouncing Southwest's petitions as a "cheap publicity stunt."
The bid to overturn the law "is a prime example of selfish opportunism," labor leaders said, adding that "Southwest is trying to change the rules for their own benefit."
But Thom McDaniel, president of the local chapter of Southwest's flight attendants union, said he was "disappointed in the unions at American" for their statements.
"Unions always need to stand up for the rights of workers," he said. "And the workers at Southwest have a right to access the fair market at Love Field."
The increasingly heated war of words between American and Southwest comes as a key U.S. Senate committee is preparing to hold hearings on the issue, possibly next month.
Ricks said Kelleher is ready to testify. "I've never known Herb to give a boring speech," he said.
Garton declined to comment on whether Gerard Arpey, American's chairman and chief executive, will also testify.
The Wright Amendment is a 1979 law that restricts flights at Love Field to Texas and bordering states. It also allows flights to Kansas, Mississippi and Alabama.
Southwest has been pushing to overturn the amendment for more than a year. The airline wants the rules eliminated so it can begin long-haul service from Love, arguing that nearby D/FW Airport doesn't fit its lean, low-cost business model. Southwest claims that lifting the restrictions would bring fares down at both airports and spur more traffic to the region.
With Southwest growing fast nationwide, it is becoming increasingly difficult to operate its corporate headquarters from Dallas, given the restrictions at Love, said Colleen Barrett, the airline's president. Southwest officials have said previously that they might have to move the company's headquarters.
"There could be a time, if we continue to have a modicum of success, that it would be a bit odd for us to have our headquarters at one of the smallest posts in our system," she said.
D/FW officials and American Airlines, which operates a hub there, have bitterly opposed the drive to repeal the amendment, arguing that it could hurt the larger airport and damage the local economy. They say that Southwest should begin long-haul flights from D/FW, which is unrestricted.
Southwest employees have been collecting anti-Wright signatures for months, often passing out petitions on airplanes during flights from Love Field. They've also descended on restaurants, sporting events, taverns and other venues.
In some cases, flight attendants have brought attention to the petition drive by wearing vintage 1970s uniforms, including hot pants and go-go boots.
In addition to the petitions, Barrett said, more than 20,000 Texans have written letters to Congress asking for the amendment to be repealed.
Airline employees gave the news and samples of the petitions to Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, both Texas Republicans, Tuesday morning.
"Texas has spoken," Barrett said. "We decided it was time to send a message to the two Texas senators that this is what Texas voters want."
Chris Paulitz, a spokesman for Hutchison, said she has heard from thousands of constituents on both sides of the issue.
Hutchison "will work to ensure the Senate takes a thoughtful look at the Wright Amendment," he said.
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