American Takes Airline Battle to Southwest's Turf

ST. LOUIS -- From most appearances, American Airlines' 6:30 a.m. Thursday flight to St. Louis from Dallas Love Field was a routine red-eye.

Passengers boarded the MD-80 before daybreak. There were plenty of available seats, including most of the middle ones dreaded by veteran travelers. The flight ascended just as the sun began to rise, and landed uneventfully 90 minutes later at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

Typical by most measures. But the quiet buzz among crew members and passengers was about the history the flight was making as American's first flight from Love Field since 2001. American employees enthusiastically welcomed passengers to a new era in North Texas commercial airline service, and the trip marked the first substantial head-to-head competition in North Texas between Fort Worth-based American and Dallas-based Southwest Airlines.

"American is always ready to compete," said flight attendant Patricia Abood as she prepared the cabin for takeoff.

Most of the travelers interviewed said they welcomed the new service, and some said they preferred flying out of Love Field instead of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, American's primary hub.

"I live in Frisco, so it's a straight shot down the tollway for me," said George Bercha, who was traveling to St. Louis on business. "It's absolutely more convenient."

American began its Love Field service, which also includes flights to Kansas City, Mo., San Antonio and Austin, after Congress loosened the Wright Amendment last year. The amendment, a 1979 federal law, restricts commercial flights from Love to airports in Texas, bordering states and Mississippi, Alabama and Kansas.

In 2004, Southwest, which shuns D/FW and operates solely out of Love, began lobbying Congress to lift the restrictions, calling them outdated and anti-consumer. Last year, the lawmakers exempted Missouri from the restrictions, allowing nonstop flights to St. Louis and Kansas City.

Southwest began service to those cities from Love in December. American will fly its flights to Missouri on MD-80s, while the Austin and San Antonio flights will be on small jets flown by American Eagle, the carrier's regional affiliate.

"My customers have been clamoring for this," said Madeline Duchon, a travel agent for Precision Travel who was flying to St. Louis to "check the new service out."

She said many of her Dallas-based clients prefer to fly from Love whenever possible.

"They would love to see the Wright Amendment go away so they can get more destinations," she said.

American last operated flights from Love in 2001, when it briefly flew airplanes reconfigured to carry 56 passengers, as allowed under the Wright restrictions. Those flights were aimed at upstart Legend Airlines, which circumvented the Wright barrier with 56-seat cabins on its own aircraft.

Legend shut down amid fierce competition from American after several months of operation. American halted its Love service after 9-11.

Before its battle with Legend, American had last flown from Love more than 30 years ago, before D/FW was built.

The new service kicked off Thursday morning with little fanfare, a stark difference from rival Southwest, which traditionally opens new airports with festive events that include music and goodies for passengers. Balloons decorating American's new gates, and a swarm of news reporters and cameras, were the only hints of anything unusual about the flight.

Phil Henderson, a telecommunications employee who lives in DeSoto and was traveling to St. Louis on business, said he was pleased to see American return to the Dallas airport. But he said fares would determine whether he flies from D/FW or Love in the future.

"I usually either fly Southwest or American," he said. "Price is always the driver."

Both airlines have offered substantial perks to lure passengers. American is offering triple credit on its frequent-flier program to travelers who fly one of the new routes. Southwest has also tripled its frequent-flier awards on flights to Missouri.

And both airlines are offering very cheap fares. As late as Wednesday evening, American was still selling round-trip coach fares on its first St. Louis flight for about $100. That's a substantial drop from its previous fares from D/FW.

Many analysts have predicted that American will lose money on its Love Field service because of the competition with Southwest and the fact that the airline will rely largely on local passengers to fill the planes. At D/FW, nearly 70 percent of passengers on every flight are connecting from another city, airline officials say.

"Fortress hubs are network airlines' first line of defense against low-cost carriers," Roger King, an airline analyst with CreditSights, an independent research firm, wrote in a recent report. "There is no way [American] can economically justify a satellite operation at Love."

But most passengers Thursday weren't worried about American's ability to make money -- they just appreciated the additional travel option.

"If I can get a cheaper ticket here, I'll keep coming to Love Field," said Maria McNeil, who was visiting relatives in St. Louis. "It's as simple as that."

Fort Worth Star Telegram

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