WASHINGTON -- Two airline titans are stirring up an old squabble on Capitol Hill, with lower airfares and more service between Kansas City and Dallas among the potential stakes.
Playing a decisive role in the fracas will be Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri.
American Airlines, the worlds largest airline, and Southwest Airlines, Kansas Citys largest carrier, are fighting over an obscure 26-year-old law called the Wright Amendment.
Borne from years of litigation involving airport service in Texas, the law restricts commercial flights on full-size jets from Dallas Love Field to only destinations in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. In 1997, the law was modified to allow flights between Love Field and Kansas, Mississippi and Alabama.
Southwest is the chief airline out of Love Field; most other airlines fly into the much larger Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, known as DFW. There, American is by far the largest carrier.
The practical effect of the Wright Amendment is that you cant fly Southwest directly between Dallas and most of the country, including Kansas City and St. Louis, as well as popular destinations like Chicago, New York or Orlando.
The amendment also prevents Southwest from informing customers that you could make such trips by buying two separate tickets, say from Kansas City to Tulsa and then Tulsa to Dallas.
Southwest wants the law repealed, saying things have changed in the airline industry.
With Southwests short-haul business travel still in a post-9/11 funk, the bottom line demands more lucrative long flights, said Ron Ricks, senior vice president of Southwest. Plus, new business opportunities beckon: Delta Airlines announced that it was essentially abandoning DFW.
Southwest wants its share of those passengers, Ricks said. The only thing were asking for is the opportunity to compete in the deregulated market. This shouldnt be that hard. This shouldnt be that big of an ask.
On the other side is American Airlines, with DFW officials as key allies.
American officials say they have two options if the law is abandoned: Move to Love Field to compete head-on with Southwest, or give up its most frequent fliers to Southwest, most of whom live closer to Love Field than DFW.
Either one is a bad choice, said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American. Wed have to split our operations, or lose our revenue from our best customers.
DFW officials say opening Love Field to long flights would be devastating to their airport. As airlines have the opportunity to fly to an older, lower-cost airport closer to downtown it will become more difficult for us to pay our debt and more expensive for airlines to operate, said Kevin Cox, DFWs chief operating officer.
Opponents to Southwests request suggest that airline can simply move its Dallas operations to DFW, which has no such restrictions, or fly smaller planes from Love (the Wright Amendment exempts planes with fewer than 56 seats).
Deregulation and anti-competitive behavior is a red herring in this entire debate, Wagner said. They made a business decision to stay at Love Field.
Indeed, DFW officials say theyd welcome Southwest to their airport, and have even offered a deal worth $22 million to the airline, including capital improvements and a years free rent.
They need to remember their moniker: Freedom to fly, Cox said. They have the freedom to fly right now, and it doesnt take an act of Congress.
Ricks counters that moving to DFW or flying smaller planes from Love would hinder Southwests business model, which depends in part on the low expense and high efficiencies of Love Field, and the fact that the airline flies only 137-seat 737s to hold down costs.
If this law was not there, we could have nonstop service between Dallas and Missouri, Ricks said. Id predict, on average, airfares between Kansas City and Dallas would be cut in half.
Thats music to the ears of the Kansas City Aviation Department, which saw 277,000 passengers fly between here and Dallas in 2004.
The department has no position on the amendment at this point, but spokesman Joe McBride said airports welcome the so-called Southwest Effect of lower fares on its routes.
In 2004, the average fare of all carriers between Dallas and Kansas City is $158, according to department statistics. The average fare between KCI and Indianapolis, a comparable distance that Southwest flies, was 50 percent lower.
McBride said his wife recently flew to Dallas at the last minute, at a cost of more than $900. A flight of comparable distance on Southwest at the last minute would run about $200, said Brandy King, a Southwest spokeswoman.
Competition is good for our customers, said Mark VanLoh, aviation director. If we gain any additional flights to Texas it will be good for KC.
So the fight is on for the hearts and minds of the public and of Congress.
The Wright Amendment is a federal subsidy for one airport and one airline in the hundreds of millions of dollars, Southwests Ricks said. Thats not a policy, thats a scam. And its outrageous.
Its a difficult battle of words to win, Americans Wagner said. They dont have to tell the whole story. They just have to say low fares and convenient airport and its just that simple. It isnt.
Southwest held a rally in Dallas last week promoting its fight against the Wright Amendment. It also unveiled a Web site, to publicize its efforts: www.setlovefree.com
DFW countered with its own: www.keepdfwstrong.com
In lobbying power, American and DFW would seem to have an advantage, with more long-standing relationships in Congress.
In 2004, American spent a reported $2 million on lobbying, while DFW spent more than $400,000. Southwest reported spending just $80,000.
DFW recently hired a top Washington firm, Hogan and Hartson. According to disclosure forms, the firm has five lobbyists on the case, led by a former top aide to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who could play a major role.
Newly in the middle of the debate is Sen. Kit Bond, the new chairman of the transportation appropriations subcommittee, which gives him influence over the Wright Amendments future.
A previous chairman of the subcommittee, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, led the 1997 modification of the law that allowed service between Love Field and Alabama, Mississippi and Kansas.
Bond staffers say they are gathering information about the law, and whether it should be repealed, modified again, or left intact. They have met with representatives of Southwest and DFW, with more meetings set soon with American.
As chairman, (Bond) will look at the situation in its entirety but clearly a main concern of the senators is how any legislative action would affect Missouri, said Rob Ostrander, Bonds spokesman.
American spokesman Wagner said there was no way to know if Americans Kansas City maintenance base would be affected should Southwest start a Kansas City-Dallas route and put more economic pressure on American.
American is in the process of eliminating 513 jobs. After that process is complete in June, 900 jobs will remain at the maintenance base.
But, understanding that it would cost American hundreds of millions of dollars a year, coupled with the headwind were facing now with high fuel prices, youd expect any company would have to retrench to find a way to deal with that, the American spokesman said.
One complicating factor for American: The Missouri delegations unhappiness with the aftermath of Americans takeover of St. Louis-based TWA a few years ago.
At the time, American promised to keep its hub in St. Louis and said it hoped to expand its Kansas City presence. Instead, the airline abandoned its St. Louis hub and cut jobs in Kansas City.
Over the same period, Southwest has expanded in both markets.