BOARD SKEPTICAL OF AIRLINE'S BID TO STOP REPEAL OF AMENDMENT
By JACQUE HILBURN, Staff Writer
April 30, 2005
American Airlines' efforts to fight the suggested repeal of the Wright Amendment are being met with skepticism from members of Tyler's Airport Advisory Board.
Dale Morris, American Airlines government affairs representative, shared his company's concerns last week over attempted legislation that would alter the 25-year-old Wright Amendment, a federal law that protects activities at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport by restricting flights in and out of Dallas Love Field.
Southwest Airlines, based at Love Field, is pushing to change the amendment after Delta Air Lines announced it would vacate 23 gates at DFW and cut more than 200 flights from its daily schedule, officials said.
Morris, speaking out for American's interests at a board meeting, received little support Thursday from Tyler officials, who quizzed him about claims that American Eagle might reduce service to East Texas if the push to repeal the Wright Amendment is successful.
The official asked the board to encourage its legislative representatives to oppose the repeal
, which would allow Southwest to expand its flight operations - taking business from the cash-strapped American Airlines, which lost $162 million in the first quarter of this year.
"We would have to move some operations to Love Field to compete," Morris said. "Craft needed to fill the void would come from East Texas. I can't say you would be the first to be cut or the last to be cut.
We're just asking for your support - we're a legacy carrier, and this Wright Amendment is a punch to the gut."
The Wright Amendment was established in 1979 after the Civil Aeronautics Board ordered Dallas and Fort Worth to build a jointly owned airport after it was determined that competing airports were harmful to the public interest.
DFW opened in 1974, but Love Field was allowed to remain open after Southwest filed a series of lawsuits, opposing relocation to the new DFW facility.
In response to those suits, the Wright Amendment, named after U.S. Rep. Jim Wright, was created.
The measure allowed Southwest to stay at Love Field and provide service to limited points in Texas and the four contiguous states.
Without the amendment, the city of Dallas would have pursued a plan to close Love Field because it was taking business away from the new DFW airport, officials said.
Twenty-five years later, DFW is no longer a struggling newcomer to the airline industry.
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said it was time for change.
"DFW, one of the world's largest and most successful airports, is no longer a child," Kelly said in a written statement. "Love is one-fifth its size and limited, by the Master Plan, to 32 gates. DFW has more than 140 gates and hardly needs federal government protection to succeed. If it does, something must be wrong.
"Most major U.S. cities have multiple airports," Kelly said. "North Texas should be proud, not upset, to have two. Tiny Love is no threat to mighty DFW."
American officials disagree.
In his remarks to Tyler officials last week, Morris disagreed with Southwest's position, saying that expanding flights would have a negative impact on American's travel stops, including Tyler Pounds Regional Airport and Longview's East Texas Regional Airport.
"If allowed to expand, (Tyler) would be less attractive to fly from," Morris said. "We are urging you to support a non-repeal of the Wright Amendment - it's going to hurt us as a company, but it's going to hurt you as a community. Non-repeal is the best option for Tyler."
He urged the board to ask representatives from its airports, chambers of commerce, mayors, city councils and county commissioners to write letters, urging lawmakers to stop the Wright repeal.
Morris said American would soon reduce its fees, giving even greater value for East Texas travelers, especially amid soaring fuel costs that are cutting into profits.
The reduction is necessary to keep up with Southwest, which was able to offer lower fares because it had enough cash reserves to hedge rising costs without passing those expenses on to customers, he said.
Morris' mention that American was considering a fee reduction at the same time it was seeking political support from East Texas ignited discussions among some Tyler airport board members.
"I've been reading articles in the paper that Southwest was not interested in operating out of DFW," said board member James Brettell. "Your concern for passengers in Tyler and Longview is tainted a little."
Brettell said American Airlines had a history of unwillingness to waver from its two-week booking restrictions and its non-refundable ticket purchases; in addition, he said, overbooked flights are commonplace, causing inconvenience to East Texas travelers.
"I think passengers coming from Tyler and Longview might benefit from a little competition," Brettell said.
Morris acknowledged American's self-interest, saying: "Are we concerned over our own health and welfare? Absolutely. We see a clear and present threat to us and our passengers."
Board member Brad Curtis asked why it was necessary for American to move into Love Field at all.
"We would basically be losing customers to Southwest," Morris said. "There's no more space" at Love Field.
Southwest accounts for more than 95 percent of all commercial flights at Love Field, making that airport the nation's most single-carrier-dominated facility, officials said.
Morris said American was concerned it would lose business travelers, who typically pay higher rates in exchange for first-class service.
Board member Sharon Howell said Southwest managed to stay profitable because it exercised restraint, citing as an example its use of one type of aircraft as opposed to American's 13.
Amid falling profits, American has since cut employees, reduced plane styles and cut scheduled flights.
"Southwest made better choices in its business plan," Ms. Howell said. "If you want to level the playing field, you would have to compete on fares and scheduling ... How would you do that? Your business plan doesn't fit.
Morris acknowledged Southwest's successes, but repeated the potential loss of flight options if American pulls aircraft out of East Texas for relocation to Love Field.
He said DFW was already affected by a pullout of almost all of Delta Air Lines' scheduled flights. The withdrawal came as DFW was poised to complete a $2 billion expansion.
Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce president Tom Mullins, a member of the audience, asked why East Texas customers did not seem to be a factor in American's motivation to seek political support.
"How do the consumers feel?" Mullins asked. "Generally, consumers really like competition - they like low costs and low fares."
Airport manager Davis Dickson said the board may request future updates from the airline.
"We want to stay apprised of what's going on," he said. "We are very interested."
©Tyler Morning Telegraph 2005