Time Flying In Wright Dispute

The limited legislative schedule and shifting political tide favor American Airlines, which opposes any changes to the 1979 law.

And just as Republican leaders have done, the newly minted Democratic leaders would probably look to the North Texas delegation for guidance. But Mr. Jillson and players on Capitol Hill think it is unlikely that liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who would be in line to be speaker of the House, would rely wholly on the conservative Mr. Hensarling.

That could boost the influence of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, the lone Democrat in the North Texas congressional delegation, as well as Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco.

Ms. Johnson has unique credentials. Love Field sits in her congressional district. And she is a member of the transportation committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue.

Ms. Johnson opposes repealing Wright. She drew fire from some constituents last summer by suggesting Love be closed to commercial flights. But Ms. Johnson also was among the first to call for a local compromise and has supported the ongoing negotiations between the mayors.

The congresswoman said she would support their recommendations as long as the deal is fair and supported by both cities.

"I would support what they decide, as long as it is unanimous," she said.

American advantage

A majority change in the Senate also might work for American.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., would become assistant majority leader. With thousands of American employees living near the carrier's Chicago hub, the airline believes he would block measures undermining the Wright.

And Mr. Durbin might make it more difficult to use the Senate's arcane rules to quietly add provisions to spending bills that would weaken the Wright law.

Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., used such a maneuver last year, making Missouri the ninth state that can be served with commercial flights from Love.

If Democrats took control of the Senate, Mr. Bond probably would be replaced as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Like other members of Washington state's congressional delegation, Ms. Murray was displeased last year with Southwest's unsuccessful attempts to abandon Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and set up a less expensive operation at Seattle's Boeing Field.

"The opportunity presented by Southwest Airlines may look appealing on the surface, but we wholeheartedly believe it would seriously damage regional and statewide interests if the proposal is not quickly dismissed," Ms. Murray and other lawmakers wrote in a letter opposing the airline.

Regardless of how the elections work out, House and Senate leaders will have to sort out the Wright controversy. And it appears increasingly likely any proposal by the mayors may not offer the clarity or political cover they might want.

Participants worry that one or both airlines may not support the deal cast by the mayors -- which would undermine the ability of the North Texas officials to sell their deal to Congress.

That prospect even worries normally optimistic Southwest officials.

"I think it would send a strong signal to Washington if the two cities agree on an approach," Mr. Chapman said.

"But if one or both of the two airlines did not agree, I'm not sure how it would play."

Awaiting report

Additionally, the process could become even more muddled by a report due in two to three months from the General Accountability Office.

The study, requested by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, will examine alternative uses for Love Field, choices that would be available under one public policy option not considered by the mayors -- forcing Southwest to move to D/FW Airport.

"It will provide a whole new source of info about alternatives that no one locally would have much interest in producing," Mr. Jillson said.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Dallas Morning News

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