Cities Working to Get Southwest and American to Meet and Talk About Wright

March 13, 2006
Both airlines said Friday they hadn't been contacted. And actually getting the world's largest airline, American, in the same room with the country's most profitable airline, Southwest, won't be easy.

The Fort Worth and Dallas mayors are actively trying to get American and Southwest airlines together so the companies can talk about resolving the Wright Amendment dispute, key people close to the situation say.

Two Fort Worth City Council members, who asked to remain unidentified because of the political sensitivity of the issue, confirmed that the mayors want American and Southwest to meet. That's an indication that the negotiating process is beginning to take shape, days after the Fort Worth and Dallas city councils passed resolutions agreeing to try and resolve the impasse on the controversial flight restrictions at Dallas Love Field.

But both airlines said Friday they hadn't been contacted. And actually getting the world's largest airline, American, in the same room with the country's most profitable airline, Southwest, won't be easy.

Tim Wagner, a spokesman, repeated American's previously stated concerns about a one-on-one meeting with executives from a competitor, saying such talks could trigger accusations of antitrust violations and perhaps even a Justice Department lawsuit. Airlines are restricted by law from collaborating on fares, routes or operations, but they are allowed to discuss public aviation policy.

"It's a fine line; I think the Department of Justice would need to be a party to determine what could be discussed," Wagner said. He pointed out that Justice Department lawyers monitored talks between American and United Airlines last year on congestion at O'Hare Airport in Chicago.

American also believes that the talks should be broadened to include other parties besides the airlines, Wagner said.

"This is bigger than just American and Southwest," he said. "The people who live near Love Field, the businesses around it should have a voice, the airports should have a voice, as well as the cities that run the airports."

Ron Ricks, Southwest's senior vice president of public affairs, said Southwest officials believe that it's up to them to offer up a "substantive, specific suggestion" for how to end the squabbles.

He said no one asked Southwest to do it.

"We just thought it was obvious that would be the correct thing to do under the circumstances," he said. "Southwest Airlines is perfectly happy to take the ball and run with it, but that doesn't necessarily entail meeting with American. In other words, we're not negotiating with American Airlines. We're responding to requests made in public by two city governments."

Ricks said Southwest's "suggestion" will address three key areas: the phaseout of the Wright Amendment over time, limits on the number of gates at Love Field, and connecting and one-stop ticketing. Stakeholders in the debate have also mentioned airport user fees and the creation of a regional airport authority as two other important deal points.

Ricks was not specific how long it will take Southwest to come up its proposal. "It will not take us that long to use our No. 2 pencil and put something on a yellow legal pad," he said.

American has said that it won't join in negotiations for a local compromise unless all options are on the table, including its suggestion that Love Field be closed to commercial traffic.

Ricks said Southwest won't try to persuade American to negotiate.

"American has to respond how ever they see fit," he said. "It's not up to us to get American to the table."

Meanwhile in Dallas, Mayor Laura Miller sent a memo to the 14 City Council members Thursday, urging them to sign up for one of five small group meetings on the Wright Amendment this month that will be closed to the public.

Beginning Wednesday, Miller plans to begin the series of 90-minute meetings with council members in her City Hall conference room.

To keep from having a quorum, each meeting will have fewer than nine council members "so that the meetings can remain closed to the public," Miller wrote in her memo. The Star-Telegram obtained a copy.

"The number of meetings in April and May will no doubt increase as we make progress," Miller wrote. The meetings in March -- one on Wednesday, another the next Monday and three in the month's final week -- will mainly offer an overview of the issues and lay out the process and options for moving forward, according to the memo.

The two Fort Worth council members said attempting to get the airlines together is a good start.

"One of the stated objectives is to get the airlines talking and get as many people talking as possible," one of the council members said. "I know there's a lot of conversations taking place. I think we're all moving as fast as we can."

This person said the mayors aren't trying to hand the negotiations off to the airlines.

The Wright Amendment restricts long-haul commercial flights at Dallas Love Field to cities in Texas and eight nearby states. Southwest began campaigning against the 1979 federal law more than a year ago, saying it's outdated, restricts competition and keeps airfares high in the North Texas market.

American and supporters of the Wright Amendment argue that the law helped build Dallas/Fort Worth Airport into an economic engine and should not be repealed. They say Southwest should move its operations to D/FW, from where it could fly anywhere.

Southwest has said it won't move to D/FW because it doesn't fit the company's business model. American dominates D/FW, while Southwest dominates Love.

The two cities have been prodded into negotiations on the Wright Amendment by Congress, which last year exempted Missouri from the flight restrictions. The Fort Worth and Dallas councils this week passed resolutions asking Congress to give the cities time to seek a local agreement.

Dallas' resolution asked for a pause in legislative efforts until after June 14; Fort Worth asked for Aug. 1.

At the request of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who has been lobbying Congress to stand down while Fort Worth and Dallas negotiate, Miller sent a letter Friday to Congress telling members about the resolutions.

Any negotiations promise to be complex. There's broad support for limiting growth at Love. Beyond that, Wright Amendment foes want repeal or at least a phaseout, and connecting and one-stop ticketing to long-haul destinations as soon as possible.

Both sides want to discuss creating a regional airport authority that would own major North Texas airports, but that issue gets sticky when it comes to which airports to include. Fort Worth, for example, doesn't want to include Alliance Airport.

Wright Amendment proponents also want to discuss disparate landing fees at D/FW and Love, which is among the cheapest airports nationally for airlines.

Staff writers Trebor Banstetter and Maria Recio contributed to this report.

Fort Worth Star Telegram

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