D.C. Airport Authority Could Serve as Wright Guide

March 6, 2006
Washington is an example that may help Dallas and Fort Worth officials, who have been exploring whether a regional airport authority could help settle the renewed fight over the Wright amendment.

Mar. 4--When Jim Wilding took over the newly formed Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, he had to navigate the interests of Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the White House.

But unlike officials in North Texas, who must decide whether to allow long-haul flights at Dallas Love Field, he didn't have to worry about shifting traffic from one airport to another.

In the Washington area, the federal government defined the airports' roles before forming the regional airport authority in 1987.

The Washington example may help Dallas and Fort Worth officials, who have been exploring whether a regional airport authority could help settle the renewed fight over the Wright amendment.

Some aviation industry officials and experts say creating a regional authority to govern Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Love Field isn't likely to resolve the contentious issue, which divides the region's two hometown carriers, Southwest Airlines Co. and American Airlines Inc.

Instead, they say, it may make more sense to define the airports' roles, then create the authority.

"There was no belief that the formation of an authority would solve the problems," said Mr. Wilding, who ran the two Washington-area airports when they were federally operated from 1979 through 1987, and led the airport authority until 1993.

On Wednesday, Dallas Mayor Laura Miller is expected to ask the City Council to vote on a resolution asking Congress for a legislative moratorium until Oct. 1 on efforts to repeal or amend the 1979 Wright law. The Fort Worth City Council is expected to consider a similar resolution.

Their discussions follow warnings from Texas congressional leaders. They have said a locally negotiated compromise might be the only way to take control of the issue, now that the repeal movement has gained momentum with the addition last fall of Missouri as the ninth state in the Wright perimeter.

One leading proposal is to form an airport authority to oversee both D/FW and Love. Finding a model that works for the Dallas-Fort Worth area could prove difficult. No two authorities are alike, each formed to address unique circumstances.

Many issues

As North Texas officials explore options for their own regional authority, they'll have dozens of issues to sort through.

--Which airports would be included? Early reports mentioned D/FW and Love Field, and possibly Meacham International Airport. But where would that leave business jet center Dallas Executive Airport, which, like Love Field, is owned by the city of Dallas? Or Fort Worth's privately operated Alliance Airport, which competes with D/FW for some cargo operations and hosts an American Airlines maintenance base?

--Who would run the authority? The cities of Dallas and Fort Worth currently appoint members to a board of directors for D/FW, based on each community's ownership share. If other airports were added, how would that mix change? Would other communities in the region be included?

--How would an authority be created? When D/FW was being planned, the Texas Constitution was amended to allow such authorities to be created. But the law also allows the authority to have taxing power -- a key factor that caused efforts to form one in 1968 to fail.

--What powers would an authority have? Implementation of any Wright-like perimeter restrictions -- assuming the federal Wright law was repealed -- would still require federal approval.

10-year process

The different roles for Dulles International Airport in Virginia and the facility now known as Reagan National Airport were approved only after more than a decade of political battle.

Dulles, it was determined, would serve as the international gateway, also hosting transcontinental traffic. And Reagan National would be limited to flights under 1,250 miles and wouldn't grow beyond its urban footprint.

Having strategic policy decisions in place before the authority was formed allowed Mr. Wilding and his team to reinvest in the airports and make them into what they are today.

"I don't think there's any way it would have been successful if it were done in any other order," Mr. Wilding said.

For all the power airport authorities command, there are key weaknesses, too.

"There are all sorts of things -- like telling an airline where to fly -- that only the federal government could do," Mr. Wilding said.

Except for Love Field, only Reagan National and New York's LaGuardia Airport maintain perimeter rules among U.S. airports.

Reagan National's perimeter restrictions have been expanded twice in the last six years to accommodate limited flights as far away as Los Angeles.

And LaGuardia's restrictions are tied partly to infrastructure and congestion issues.

Mr. Wilding said a regional authority's ability to impose a perimeter would face numerous challenges today.

"You'd have to make an incredibly persuasive case to the federal government that you're not impinging on interstate commerce," he said. "I think it's a long shot at best."

And although regional governing bodies may approach issues with a broader perspective, that doesn't insulate them from polarizing issues. "You have short-term winners and losers, and that's the toughest thing to sort out," said Robert Mann, an aviation consultant based in New York.

Remaining problems

He pointed to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three major New York area airports.

"For years, people in New York complained that Newark got all the attention," Mr. Mann said. "Now ... [JFK International Airport] is getting investment."

Don Knabe, a Los Angeles county supervisor whose district includes Los Angeles International Airport and Long Beach Airport, has been trying for years to revive the Southern California Regional Airport Authority. The authority has foundered for lack of participation by key players, including the city of Los Angeles.

That may soon change. An agreement in the lawsuit against the Los Angeles airport master plan requires officials to renew their efforts for such an organization.

"Unless you get the right board makeup and commitment from all the players, it won't fly," Mr. Knabe said.

In North Texas, a regional authority is only one of the options under consideration, said Jeff Fegan, D/FW's chief executive.

"This is a very sensitive situation," Mr. Fegan said. "We are looking to the political leadership to help resolve this issue."

Some key North Texas players have already weighed in with skepticism that it would be the key to resolving the current Wright debate.

An authority could provide a useful forum, but "people shouldn't mistake it for the solution to the problem we're having with the expansion at Love Field," said Dan Garton, executive vice president for marketing at American, which opposes changes to Wright.

And Southwest chairman Herb Kelleher said the question of whether to form an authority isn't germane to the issue. Southwest backs repeal so it can serve its nationwide network from Love Field, its home airport.

"It seems to me it's sort of a separate topic in essence," Mr. Kelleher said. "Because having a regional airport authority does not necessarily resolve Wright amendment issues one way or another ... it is no longer a local issue."

Staff writers Robert Dodge and Sudeep Reddy in Washington, D.C., and Eric Torbenson in Dallas contributed to this report.

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