Dallas Airport Dispute Goes to Washington

11-9-05 - After a year of lobbying, Southwest Airlines Co. will get its chance Thursday to persuade Congress to let it fly anywhere from its home base of Dallas Love Field, a move that is adamantly opposed by rival American Airlines.

Southwest's opponents, including Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, warmed up for Thursday hearing before a Senate subcommittee by holding a news conference to argue that unlimited flights from Love Field would undermine bigger DFW.

Some said expanding Love Field would increase noise and traffic in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods nearby. "Southwest has never been a particularly good neighbor," said Adelfa Callejo, past chairwoman of the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Southwest has countered with about 250,000 signatures on petitions urging repeal of the Wright Amendment, a 1979 law that limits most commercial flights from Love Field to beyond Texas and nearby states. It says North Texas consumers, who pay some of the highest air fares in the country, are being overcharged because of a lack of competition at DFW Airport, where American operates about 80 percent of the flights.

"We're hopeful that the Senate committee hearing will prove that free-market enterprise should prevail and we can bring lower fares," said Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King.

Both sides have made their arguments in television, newspaper and billboard advertisements. Southwest flight attendants have worn T-shirts declaring that "Wright is Wrong." DFW Airport employees rallied outside Southwest's headquarters and begged the low-cost carrier to launch service at their airport.

While Southwest and American have attempted to rally public support, average citizens won't decide the outcome _ only Congress can repeal the 1979 law. Even Southwest's allies in Congress have said action this year is highly unlikely, partly because Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, chairman of the House committee that would consider the issue, backs DFW and American.

Southwest was content to live with Love Field restrictions for 30 years until last fall, when Chief Executive Gary Kelly announced it would seek to repeal the old law. Congress will hold its first hearing on the subject in years when the aviation subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee meets Thursday.

Southwest will be represented by an icon of American business, Herb Kelleher, its longtime CEO and current chairman. The chain-smoking Kelleher won't be able to light up or indulge his fondness for Wild Turkey during the hearing, but he will try to sway senators with his charm and colorful phrases.

American will send Chairman and CEO Gerard Arpey, who is more soft-spoken but earnest and direct, and DFW Airport will be represented by Chief Operating Officer Kevin Cox.

Two senators and three House members and members of several Dallas-area civic groups, representing both sides of the debate, are also scheduled to testify.

DFW Airport has been unable to replace gates that were abandoned last year, when Delta Air Lines Inc. eliminated its Dallas hub.

Cox said if Congress allows unrestricted flights from Love Field, DFW Airport could be left with 35 empty gates and one of the highest costs per passenger of any airport in the country. It would be "virtually impossible" to attract new airlines, he said.