Competing Bills Fill the Air as Senate Battles Wright Amendment

Dallas Love Field would be closed to commercial airline service under a bill filed in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, the latest salvo in an escalating battle in Washington over the Wright Amendment.

The proposed law, put forward by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa., would leave Love open for general aviation and corporate aircraft. But it would prevent any commercial flights there -- a move that, if passed, would force Dallas-based Southwest Airlines from its longtime home base.

The proposal came as Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev., and John McCain, R-Ariz., filed a bill that would repeal the amendment, allowing unrestricted commercial flights from Love. That bill is similar to a House measure put forward by Republican Reps. Sam Johnson of Plano and Jeb Hensarling of Dallas in May, to lift restrictions that limit flights from Love Field to cities in Texas, bordering states, plus Kansas, Alabama and Mississippi.

"It's long overdue to repeal this arcane law," McCain said.

And another senator, Kit Bond, R-Mo., added a measure to a spending bill that would allow flights from Love to Missouri. The provision would allow Southwest to serve St. Louis and Kansas City from Dallas.

A spokeswoman for Harkin said the Iowa senator was supporting Inhofe's "True Competition Act" because he's concerned that smaller cities in Iowa and Illinois could lose service to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport if the amendment is lifted. He fears that American Airlines would shift capacity to compete with Southwest on flights to larger cities, leaving small communities without service.

"He did it to prevent the elimination of these flights," said spokeswoman Maureen Knightly, citing routes to Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Moline, Ill., in particular.

Executives with Fort Worth-based American welcomed the bill.

"It appropriately broadens the debate over the Wright Amendment," Will Ris, the airline's senior vice president of government affairs, said in a statement. "It is a highly complicated issue, and a full range of options should be explored if there is to be any discussion of a new compromise."

A spokesman for D/FW Airport said officials had not yet seen the proposal and were unable to comment late Tuesday.

But a spokesman for Southwest called the bill a "scare tactic" that "is counter to what most of the flying public wants."

Spokesman Ed Stewart said that even if Love Field were shut down, Southwest would not begin service at D/FW. "D/FW is totally out of the question," he said.

He declined to comment on whether Southwest would move its corporate headquarters to another city if the airport is closed to commercial service.

Critics of the Wright Amendment, crafted in 1979 when D/FW was still a relatively new airport, have long complained that passengers traveling to more distant states on Southwest must book two tickets -- one within the Wright Amendment's boundaries and another to the final destination. Under the law, they must reboard and recheck their baggage, often paying considerably higher fares.

Six months ago, Southwest executives embarked on a crusade to overturn the amendment, arguing that it artificially inflates fares by preventing competition.

But officials with D/FW and American counter that eliminating the restrictions could hurt the larger airport and ultimately damage the area's economy.

D/FW officials have been pushing for Southwest to move to their facility and running ads citing a survey that showed public support for Southwest flights at the airport.

Southwest scored a victory Tuesday morning, when Ensign and McCain unveiled their "American Right to Fly Bill."

Texas' two Republican senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, are opposed to the bill and suggested that both sides work together to try to resolve the dispute.

Julie Dammann, Bond's chief of staff, said it is likely that more senators will seek exemptions for their states as the appropriations bill moves through the process. On Tuesday, Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., both said they would like their states allowed service from Love.

Ensign's Senate measure ratchets up the repeal effort, which officially began in May when Johnson and Hensarling introduced their "Right to Fly" bill.

Herb Kelleher, Southwest's co-founder and chairman, applauded the Ensign-McCain bill as another step toward terminating what he called a "stupid anachronism."

Phoenix and Las Vegas -- home to McCain and Ensign constituents -- are among the few cities that currently have low-fare service from D/FW. America West, a Phoenix-based discounter, connects that city with D/FW. And AirTran Airways connects D/FW with Las Vegas.

But both cities are major Southwest operations. The Dallas carrier is the largest airline in Las Vegas and No. 2 in Phoenix, behind America West. The airline is a large employer in both communities.

American and D/FW, supported by members of the Tarrant County congressional delegation, say the Wright Amendment is needed to prevent a potential economic downturn at D/FW. A study commissioned by the airport concluded that that facility could lose up to 22 million passengers annually to Love if the restrictions are lifted.

Ris said that Ensign's bill guaranteed Southwest an "unprecedented federal monopoly from Love Field" because growth at the airport is limited by the Love Field Master Plan, which Dallas approved in 2001.

"There are no provisions in the bill that would facilitate the introduction of service by other carriers at Love," Ris said.

Southwest operates 14 gates at Love Field, and can add seven more under the master plan. The plan limits the airport to 32 gates.

American has threatened to move hundreds of flights from D/FW to Love if the amendment is lifted. That would require far more gates than are currently allowed under the plan, and American executives have vowed to file lawsuits if necessary to expand the airport.

Ris stressed that American would prefer the status quo.

"We still believe, however, that it is unnecessary to reverse sound public policy," he said, inviting Southwest to move to D/FW if it wants to operate longer flights.

But Kelleher again emphatically rejected that notion again.

"We are not going to D/FW," he said. "If anybody doesn't understand that, we'll be glad to talk to you about the 'n' and the 'o.'