Wright Compromise is Win-Win

March 2, 2006
For more than a year, American Airlines, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and the city of Fort Worth have been unified on the subject, refusing to consider a possible settlement of the fight.

Could compromise become the wedge issue on the Wright Amendment?

For more than a year, American Airlines, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and the city of Fort Worth have been unified on the subject, refusing to consider a possible settlement of the fight over long-haul traffic from Dallas Love Field.

Publicly, they often said the 27-year-old law was already a compromise and any new discussions had to begin with the idea of shuttering Love.

This position is so extreme -- and such a nonstarter -- that it stopped the compromise talk pronto, which was probably the intent.

But attitudes appear to be softening on Wright, with some serious talks under way. No deal is imminent, and there's no assurance of any agreement. But the pursuit of a compromise is a significant development in itself.

As we move down that path, the Wright defenders may discover that they don't have the same goals, which could divide their loyalties and lead to a breakthrough.

Both senators from Texas are urging local politicians to find common ground, warning that the Wright wall is cracking.

The mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth recently met to talk Wright, which is meaningful, considering that Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief said last year that there was no need for such a meeting.

Power brokers are also working behind the scenes, floating proposals that would spread the pain and ease the transition.

A compromise would probably include three key elements: a hard cap on the number of gates at Love; a lengthy phase-out period; and the right to sell through tickets immediately from Love, letting Southwest customers connect anywhere in its network.

The push for a compromise is a recognition of the growing support for repealing the law, not just in North Texas but in many other locales. And not just among consumers but also among lawmakers.

Southwest Airlines wanted to galvanize support by arousing consumers and enlisting them in the repeal campaign. The plan is working.

After getting Missouri exempted from Wright late last year, fares to St. Louis and Kansas City have plunged, and enthusiasm is spreading.

The Omaha World-Herald recently ran a story telling business travelers that they could drive 180 miles to Kansas City to save $450 on flights to the Metroplex. Not surprisingly, a Nebraska congressman said the state should push for a Missouri-like waiver.

Similar sentiments have been heard from Tennessee, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Utah.

The Texas delegation is saying it can't hold back Congress forever. With elections looming, there's even more pressure to find a permanent solution and get on to more important business.

People also seem weary of the political battle. It's already taken a lot of management time, lobbying money and political capital, and absent a deal, no let-up is in sight.

Southwest has an uncanny knack for keeping the issue in the news, too, and can run advertisements to keep people talking.

This week, Phoenix officials are publicly courting Southwest to explore the idea of relocating to a place that doesn't restrict its flights. Naturally, it's a big story in the Metroplex and elsewhere, and it's received prominent play in print and broadcast.

All of this is conspiring to push the parties toward a local compromise -- all parties except American Airlines.

It has the most to lose by a Wright repeal, because it would have to match Southwest's lower fares, even though it operates its largest hub at more expensive D/FW. Because American earns a hefty premium there, it stands to earn more by delaying repeal as long as possible.

It may even make sense for American to reject a compromise in favor of changes that occur in drips and drabs: a few states here, a few states there. At least the premium might last longer.

But why should D/FW and Fort Worth want to extend the battle?

They're public institutions, and they must answer to the public first. They have to fear a backlash from consumers, voters and residents.

And how good is the status quo anyway? D/FW has a load of empty gates, a rising debt load and a sorry history with discount carriers.

If Love Field's size is capped -- and assurances are ironclad, confirmed by Congress, the Transportation Department and Dallas -- the threat of a secondary airport is limited.

Under the current master plan, Love, with no room for expansion, can never challenge D/FW for dominance in North Texas, and a compromise is more likely to reduce Love's maximum size, not increase it.

The potential upside for Fort Worth and D/FW is that a freed Love could eventually lead to more local traffic at D/FW, thanks to more competition in the marketplace. After a growth spurt at Love, all additional flights would go to D/FW, for decades and decades.

On many flights, local residents would pay less, too.

More passengers from North Texas, lower fares and an end to a bitter fight that's costing a lot.

Now, who would oppose that?

Fort Worth Star Telegram

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