The Love Evolution

April 22, 2015

When the legislature righted a wrong by lifting the Wright Amendment on October 13, Dallas Love Field officials felt prepared.

They had been working toward the ending of more than three decades of federal restrictions on the airport’s outbound traffic since 2006; the date when Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, the cities of Dallas and Dallas-Fort Worth finally agreed to a compromise.

They agreed that airlines could not provide one-stop or connecting service to farther points than the eight states specified in the Wright Amendment until October 13, 2014, at which point the restrictions would fade away and airlines could launch nonstop flights from Love Field to any U.S. destination.

Immediately after this consensus was reached, airport officials laid out the Love Field Modernization Program to Wright-size the airport as the restrictions were lifted. Marketed as the Love Evolution, the $519 million plan would replace aging airport facilities including the construction of a 20-gate terminal, add halls for ticketing and baggage claims and renovate the main lobby. They hired Corgan Associates to design the facility and picked Hensel Phelps Construction as the main contractor.

Work began in 2009 and ended in 2014—right before the Wright Amendment restrictions flew away.

The project, with a tab that came in approximately $19 million under budget, was completed with a month to spare. It included 637,000 square feet of new construction and 255,000 square feet of renovated space. The state-of-the-art facility designed with the passenger in mind included new baggage and ticketing halls, an efficient security checkpoint, baggage and handling systems, and an expanded concessions space.

Love Field was ready for the next leg of the journey—and then it actually happened. And there were a few surprises, reports Mark Duebner, Love Field’s director of aviation.

“We redid everything,” he says. “We were ready. We have not ended up with more [traffic] than we thought we would; it’s more a question of how quickly we’ve grown.”

Though a few issues have cropped up as traffic exploded, Duebner sees only positives in the airport’s future. “It hasn’t been perfect. It hasn’t been without challenges. And I’m sure we’ll see some challenges in the future, but I think it’s safe to say that overall the changes we’ve made have been a great success.

Traffic Takes Off

Love Field’s traffic has hovered at approximately 4 million enplanements for years, with slight ups and downs due to fluctuations in the economy. That number abruptly changed as airlines began adding flights to the city-owned airport, six miles northwest of downtown Dallas. Says Duebner, “The Wright Amendment ended in October 2014, and by December 2014 we were 46 percent over December 2013.”

The December numbers are not a fluke, either. The launch of dozens of new flights has prompted Love Field officials to boost their estimates on the number of enplanements the airport will see in 2015, according to Duebner.

He explains planners expected to see passenger boardings hit 6.5 million by 2017 or 2018. Now planners project the airport will achieve that number by the close of 2015.

“We are somewhat surprised that we’ll hit that number sooner than originally projected,” he adds.
Duebner attributes the accelerated rate of enplanements to new flights rolled out by Southwest Airlines and Virgin America. Because of strong load factors on their initial rollouts, Southwest Airlines beefed up its schedule from 118 flights to 166 as of this month and Virgin America, which started out with nine flights, increased to 13 in February, hit 19 this month and will reach 20 in September. Delta Air Lines replaced 50-seat regional jets with 110-seat Boeing 717s for its five flights at day to Atlanta. In total, the airport will move 191 flights a day by September 1, just shy of its maximum capacity.

“We will be close to 10 flights per gate per day, which is getting to the edge of the maximum number of flights we’re going to be able to handle,” says Duebner. “We thought we’d see an increase of maybe 1 million passengers in 2015 but it looks like it will probably be double that. As a result, we’re going to be bumping up against the maximum capacity of the airport’s 20 gates much sooner than expected.”

Does that mean additional gates for the Big-D airports near future?

“No,” says Duebner. He explains the legislation assigns Love Field, which sits on 1,300 acres and is virtually landlocked on all sides, a 20-gate maximum. “We are prohibited from adding more gates,” he says. “Once we get to 10 or 11 flights per day, per gate, that’s as much as the airport is really going to be able to handle.

“It may be the limiting factor of Love Field as we move into the future; that 20 gates is all we have and we have to get the most value possible out of those 20 gates,” he adds.

Parking Pressures

Airport officials noticed the first impact from increased traffic a little more than a month after the Wright Amendment restrictions ended.

The Dallas Observer reported “by midday Thanksgiving Day, Love Field’s 4,000 parking spaces were not enough. Each one had been sold and parked in, leaving those arriving to take afternoon flights circling hopelessly or forced to go home and take DART back to the airport.”

While holiday traffic might be blamed, Duebner maintains it wasn’t the only reason for the problem—the increase of flights also led to the crunch.

In 2008, planners forecasted the airport had enough parking spaces to meet demand through 2018, but with the faster than anticipated growth in flights after October 13, the number of parking spaces will quickly fall short. As the Dallas Observer reported, “Love Field needs more spaces or a major change in culture that makes people previously unwilling to take the train more willing to do so.”

Though Duebner says the Love Field Modernization Plan was sound, the need for parking spaces emerged faster than expected, and the airport anticipates being approximately 1,000 spaces short by 2016.

Airport officials reacted to this new pressure as quickly as new flights took off. By December, airport officials unveiled a plan to add 4,000 covered parking spots by building a massive, five-level parking garage across from the Love Field ticket hall. This project will add to the two existing parking garages already onsite, which provide approximately 7,000 spaces. There is also valet parking available that adds around 200 spaces.

“We anticipated that the 7,000 spaces would get us through to 2017 but because of the strength in bookings and the success of the routes being flown, we had to move quickly to get a new garage constructed,” he says. “That new garage should be able to handle demand up to the maximum we anticipate. We just thought we’d have a little more time to plan, design and construct it.”

Instead construction will begin by May and will be complete in late 2017. “The need is there so we’re operating on a very accelerated basis for that project,” he says.

In the meantime, a parking quagmire exited that airport officials needed to quickly resolve. Duebner says they’ve already taken steps to mitigate the situation.

Daily parking rates will increase by $3, which officials hope will help encourage travelers to arrive at Love Field via DART or other means. In addition, the airport asked its 1,100 employees to begin parking in a vacant garage on Lemmon Avenue. Southwest Airlines is also building a new surface lot, offering around 700 spaces near the airport entrance, to handle overflow.

“We’d hate for all the goodwill from the new airport to be diminished because people had a challenge finding available parking,” Duebner says.

Sister Airport After Shocks

The City of Dallas Aviation Department oversees three airports, including Love Field and Dallas Executive Airport. And some are predicting, Dallas Executive Airport, the city’s general aviation airport, may also experience a few after shocks as a result of the lifting of the Wright Amendment’s restrictions.

Though the airport announced a year ago a $35 million plan to extend its main runway to 7,136 feet and rebuild both of its runways to handle heavier loads, these projects are even more critical now. Love Field currently sees 85,000 general aviation operations a year, and Duebner predicts those activities may eventually move to Dallas Executive Airport as Love Field’s commercial traffic picks up.

“The runways there were pretty old and due for reconstruction,” he says. “However, as commercial traffic builds at Love Field, it will probably become less desirable for the general aviation community to try to operate out there. It goes hand in glove, that we have a general aviation airport ready to handle more general aviation traffic.”

It’s safe to say as the airport adjusts to a Wright-free future it will continue to evolve and reinvent itself. But Duebner says they’re up for the challenge.

“Love Field is a tremendous asset to our city,” he stresses, noting that any issues they encounter are but minor hiccups leading the 98-year-old airport toward a brighter and Wright-sized future.