D/FW's Wright Amendment Study Ignores Public

Dallas/Fort Worth Airport spent $100,000 for a study on repealing the Wright Amendment and ducked the most important question: What's it mean to consumers?

Under the study's doomsday scenario, D/FW shrinks by a third and traffic at Love Field triples. Obviously, that wouldn't be the best use of public facilities, considering that Love is cramped and D/FW has vast empty spaces and an enormous debt load.

But maybe it's not a bad trade-off if the rest of us save $500 million a year on airfares.

The D/FW study doesn't touch this issue, but it's worthy of community debate: Does the public benefit of lifting the Wright Amendment outweigh the disruptions to the two airports?

In response to a reporter's question, the study's author conceded that airfares would probably decline. Unfortunately, the 42-page report released Tuesday doesn't evaluate consumer gains, ticket prices or the vaunted "Southwest effect." That's when a low-cost carrier enters a market, incumbents match the fares and traffic surges for everyone.

Many believe that Love Field competition would do exactly that -- spur lower prices at D/FW and more business at both airports. The study looks at four scenarios, and none contemplates a free Love Field boosting D/FW traffic.

Too far-fetched? How about the crazy idea of Love adding 21 million passengers?

The study does conclude that repealing the Wright Amendment might lead to fewer D/FW flights to smaller cities such as Green Bay, Wis., and Fort Wayne, Ind. And if American Airlines shrinks its hub, as threatened, there could be less service to Montreal, Seoul, South Korea, and other international cities.

That may happen, but so what? Airlines make such decisions all the time, presumably to deploy their planes on more lucrative routes.

There are some bragging rights -- and convenience -- with having a large hub and many nonstop flights to exotic locations. But if the flying public cares more about lower prices, so be it.

Deregulation was supposed to settle such questions a generation ago. Instead of having bureaucrats or politicians dictate air service, we let the markets rule, and they usually tilt with demand.

Should we keep the Wright Amendment in place because it helps American Airlines maintain a hub that wouldn't make economic sense otherwise?

That's not a decision the public ought to make, and it's not the purview of D/FW bureaucrats or local politicians, either.

Besides, what's so great about the status quo?

At Tuesday's news conference, local leaders parroted the usual line about D/FW being the area's economic engine. If that's still true, it needs a tuneup.

Since 1994, air passenger traffic has grown almost 33 percent across the nation, according to the Transportation Department's statistics on originating traffic.

But D/FW is up just 8 percent by that measure, and that's before Delta pulled 200 flights this year. Love Field passengers declined 13.5 percent over the same period, as flight restrictions prompted Southwest to shrink in its hometown and expand elsewhere.

Combined, this measure of passenger traffic in the Metroplex rose just 5.4 percent from 1994 to 2004.

That stinks.

But that's what happens when you miss the discount revolution, when long-haul fares are almost 40 percent higher than the national average.

Miami did worse than D/FW, but at least Fort Lauderdale doubled. Together, 40 percent more people flew out of South Florida in 2004 than in 1994.

Houston's two airports were up a combined 44 percent; Chicago's two airports were up 26 percent. Atlanta was up 53 percent and Phoenix, 50 percent.

In short, the Metroplex aviation market isn't growing like the rest of the country's. Not even close.

The best explanation is that we've put a regulatory fence around Southwest at Love Field, and American's dominance at D/FW is so lucrative that it vanquishes any challenger.

With limited competition, there's been limited growth.

Would it be ideal if Southwest would move from Love to D/FW, take a bunch of those vacant gates and help pay off the billions in bonds? Sure, but Southwest says D/FW doesn't fit its business model.

Like most of the industry, it doesn't want to take on a dominant carrier at its fortress hub.

D/FW officials say that's hogwash, but how do they think Southwest has managed to make a profit every year for three decades?

So we're at a stalemate. D/FW can't attract much low-cost competition because of American's muscle and Southwest's challenge of the Wright Amendment.

And Southwest can't offer its low fares beyond seven nearby states.

Here's an idea for the next study: How much money is the public losing while D/FW is stuck in neutral?