American Eagle Letter Hints at Punitive Action Toward Tyler, Texas Airport

Jan. 24--Some Tyler government and business say a letter from American Eagle Airlines to a Tyler businessman appears to hint that anticipated American Eagle flight reductions at Tyler Pounds Regional Airport were a punitive measure for the city's refusal to take a stand on the Wright Amendment.

Members of the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce Aviation Committee, during a Monday meeting, agreed the community should continue a letter-writing campaign to urge American Airlines to avoid flight cuts. American Eagle previously indicated it would cut flights to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport from seven to four per day.

The committee members were given copies of a Jan. 17 e-mail from Dale E. Morris, manager director, government affairs/community relations for American Eagle. The message was in response to an e-mail in which Phil Burks, a Tyler entrepreneur, asked the airline to "consider the economics of others like me that might actually flip all segments to Continental and hub out of Houston to the world" if American were to cut back on its commuter Tyler-Dallas flights.

Morris, responding to Burks' e-mail, said a need to move American Eagle capacity to compete with Southwest Airlines between Love Field in Dallas, St. Louis and Kansas City was the main reason behind a reduction of service in Tyler. He said the shifting of the airline is a response to a relaxation of the Wright Amendment.

The Wright Amendment dates to the early 1970s, when the city of Dallas began taking steps to close Love Field to avoid taking away business from the then-new DFW airport.

Southwest Airlines, which was based at Love Field, sued over what it described as a "forced" move to DFW and prevailed. The Wright Amendment, passed in 1979, restricted the airline's service to limited points in Texas and neighboring states in an effort to protect DFW.

Now, Southwest officials are telling lawmakers there is more than enough ridership to support two airports. Amid objections from American, Southwest was granted permission in December to expand flight operations into Missouri.

American, in a meeting last year with the city's Airport Advisory Board, indicated that if the amendment were repealed, it would create new economic pressures and the airline would have to cut some Tyler service to remain competitive in the new market.

But some committee members believed Morris' letter alluded to flight cutbacks being in response to the city' refusal to take a side on the Wright Amendment.

Morris wrote: "As an individual charged with the responsibility to represent AE in the community, I must say, Mr. Burks, that it was a disappointment that your elected, appointed and business leadership in Tyler chose not to recognize the importance of objecting to changes to the Wright Amendment. Even after a commissioned study -- was presented to the airport showing how repeal of the Wright Amendment can threaten service to small communities, including Tyler, I received no response. I firmly believe their inaction has contributed to the loosening of the Wright Amendment restrictions and ultimately lead to the service reductions in Tyler.

"Mr. Burks, as an entrepreneur in Tyler that depends on international and domestic service, perhaps you can convince them that they made a bad decision in this regard and make them understand that there is no chance of Southwest servicing Tyler." Tyler Mayor Joey Seeber said he saw the Jan. 17 e-mail last week, and he said it represented to him a link between the city's refusal to take a side on the Wright Amendment and the actions of American.

"That letter is the first indication that I've gotten from anybody that American's actions had anything to do with the (city's position on the) Wright Amendment," Seeber said. "And it's implied." Tom Mullins, chamber president and CEO, told the Aviation Committee that American has always said anticipated cutbacks in Tyler would not be in response to the city's position on the Wright Amendment.

"We were stunned to see this," Mullins said, referring to the letter.

Committee member Ann Howell agreed: "I think it's pretty evident they're slapping our hands because we didn't do what they wanted us to do." Mullins said, however, that the airline also announced cutbacks in Bryan-College Station, even though that community voiced support for the Wright Amendment.

Tyler City Councilman Charles Alworth said those cuts might instead be linked to boardings in Bryan-College Station. He said many travelers there fly to Houston instead of Dallas.

Mullins said the chamber, as a business organization, is faced with two stances regarding the Wright Amendment. One stance is to support competition; the other is to abide by the businesses that have asked it to "swallow your pride" and ask the city to publicly support the amendment in order to keep all of the American Eagle flights in Tyler.

Committee member D.M. Edwards initially made a motion for the committee, an advisory body to the chamber, to request the chamber board ask the city to support the Wright Amendment. Edwards later withdrew his motion after chamber board chairman Walter Wilhelmi said he believed it was too early to ask the city to take such a position because the mayor was still trying to obtain information from American.

Seeber said he has left messages with several officials expressing his desire to discuss the situation.

"I hope that we'll be able to do that soon," the mayor said. "The city wants to do everything it can to encourage increased levels of service at our airport, and we would love to sit down and talk with the people at American at any time." Some committee members said perhaps Seeber should ask American what the city would have to do to keep all seven flights. Seeber said he has been leaving the airline telephone messages in hopes of receiving a phone call.

"I really regret that the situation has deteriorated to the point that it has without our being able to talk about it," he said.

American Eagle spokesman Dave Jackson said the anticipated flight reduction was not punitive, but an economic decision.

"Our position is that regardless of the position the city continues to take on the Wright Amendment, that's not a factor in our decision," Jackson said.

"They're disappointed here that Tyler has not supported the Wright Amendment. There's disappointment here and I think one of the things that we have tried to express upon the city is the Eclat report (a report from Eclat Consulting of Arlington, Va., shown to the Airport Advisory Board last year), which says Tyler was a high risk of seeing reduced service if the Wright Amendment was repealed." Jackson, when asked what would be American's reply if the mayor asked the airline what it had to do to maintain current service, said flights would be pulled because the airplanes had to be used to compete with Southwest when American begins service at Love Field in March.

Also, he said, competition with Southwest will cause American to cease some domestic and international flights, and this could lessen the demand for flights out of Tyler to DFW.

"It's hard to know what it's going to take, because after we pull the flights out, what does the traffic look like? If we are finding that we have to add more flights from Tyler to DFW, -- we will make the decisions then," Jackson said. "When you start taking flights out of the hub, it reduces the connecting opportunities from all the cities that we serve from DFW." Smith County Commissioner David Stein, a guest at the meeting, urged maintaining a good relationship with Continental Airlines.

Airport Manager Davis Dickson said American Eagle and Continental, whose connection to Houston from Tyler is Colgan Air, are very different airlines with which to work. Continental has increased its flights, and has indicated that a possibility exists to add more flights, Dickson said.