Fight Over Love Field Goes National

WASHINGTON (AP) -- What started as a squabble among Texas Republicans over a law designed to expand Dallas Fort Worth International Airport has become a national tug-of-war with lawmakers from about 20 states choosing sides between two Dallas-based airlines.

The shot across the bow in the Wright Amendment feud was a bill filed in May by Reps. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, and Sam Johnson, R-Plano proposing to repeal the 26-year-old law that restricts direct flights in and out of Dallas Love Field to the region.

Southwest Airlines calls Love Field home and operates about 100 in-state and regional flights from there, while American Airlines' main hub is at DFW, where it operates about 700 flights.

Hensarling and Johnson's proposal seemed to take a nosedive when another Texan, Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, vowed to do ''whatever it takes'' to kill the proposal.

A handful of key lawmakers, Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman, are trying to counter Barton's influence by becoming allies in the repeal fight, billing themselves as advocates for lower fares and more flights.

''We all know that the Wright Amendment is a protectionist restriction, an arbitrary constraint that limits consumers' choices in destinations and fares,'' said McCain, R-Ariz. ''There's no logical explanation I can provide to my constituents as to why they can't fly nonstop between Dallas and Phoenix on Southwest Airlines or any other airline.''

With lawmakers from about 20 states so far pushing for repeal under the ''Right To Fly Act,'' Hensarling and Johnson say the end of the Wright Amendment is a possibility, if not this session then in coming sessions.

One way to get there, Hensarling said, may be to chip away at it one state at a time.

Tennessee officials tried last session to get their state exempted from the Wright Amendment, but failed. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., filed a similar bill this session, that Hensarling is co-sponsoring.

Also, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., won subcommittee approval for a measure that would exempt his state.

The original intent of the Wright Amendment _ named after its Texan author, former House Speaker Jim Wright of Fort Worth _ was to build up DFW to drive economic growth in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. It also settled a dispute over plans to close Love Field.

The amendment meant Southwest, a fledging carrier at the time, had to limit its flights to five states, including Texas. In 1997, the law was changed to add Alabama, Mississippi and Kansas.

''That really expanded options and reduced fares for my travelers to Wichita,'' said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., adding that a repeal would provide further options and reduced fares for Kansas travelers.

''Plus, it's just an issue of basic freedom. The supposed reason for the Wright Amendment was to get DFW built up. It's obviously a very built up airport now so the purposes for the exclusivity are no longer there,'' he said.

Last year, Southwest began lobbying lawmakers for help in repealing the law as it sought to expand operations and profits. The company also began circulating petitions, asking travelers to write to members of Congress and running TV commercials and newspaper ads to encourage public support.

''It's going to happen. It's inevitable,'' Southwest Airlines spokesman Ed Stewart said of the repeal. ''It's sort of like the Berlin Wall. The Wright Amendment will fall ...This is a crusade.''

But right now the bill faces some big obstacles getting to the House and Senate floors.

Texan Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is in the Senate Republican leadership, wants hearings held next year to review how the repeal would affect everything from Love Field area homeowners to business travelers.

''I would love to have more free access, but I don't want Love Field to be a big noisy airport that encroaches on quality of life of people who built homes and lives because of the promise that it would be an intrastate airport,'' Hutchison said.

Another potential block is a bill dubbed the ''True Competition Act,'' filed by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla, and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. The legislation would end passenger air service at Love Field.

Inhofe said he's not against Southwest Airlines, but American Airlines and other carriers are just beginning to show profits and ''any little thing can cause that to be reversed.''

''I have a very selfish interest in American Airlines. They are the largest employer in my hometown in Tulsa, Okla.,'' Inhofe said. ''They've been playing by the rules. I really believe they could be legislated out of business and I can't let that happen.''

Both airlines have pulled together formidable lobbying teams. Southwest's founder Herb Kelleher makes regular trips to Washington. DFW, and American Airlines' lobbyists include Drew Maloney, a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and a former chief counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees aviation.

Although some repeal supporters have said they don't expect Congress to act on the issue this year, American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner said the airline won't back off lobbying efforts.

''We are fully engaged,'' Wagner said. ''We are aware of the consequences to the community and DFW airport if we let our guard down.''

Bills repealing the Wright Amendment are HR2646 and S1424.

The Inhofe-Harkin bill is S1425

Copyright 2005 Associated Press