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Battle at Love Field

Southwest seeks to repeal a law that limits nonstop flights from Dallas. The move could benefit West Coast flies. But rival AMR says it would hurt North Texas.

June 26, 2005|James F. Peltz and Claire Hoffman | Times Staff Writers

As a sales executive for a San Diego software firm, Gary Sabin hops aboard a Southwest Airlines jet several times a month to visit clients. But when he wants to fly the discount carrier nonstop to Dallas, he's out of luck.

"It's very disappointing," said Sabin, 46, who laments that he has to fly to Dallas regularly "but can't on Southwest."

Instead, he pays more to take a full-service airline nonstop rather than taking Southwest and facing the hassle of connecting through another city such as Albuquerque or Houston.

It's a problem familiar to many who have tried to fly Southwest direct to Dallas. But it's not just some convoluted airline route logic. It's the law.

An arcane 1979 federal statute bars nonstop flights out of Southwest's home base at Dallas' Love Field unless they are bound to or from cities in Texas or one of seven nearby states. Fliers who want to avoid connection aggravations must use the larger -- and more remote -- Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, where American Airlines dominates.

But the days of the so-called Wright Amendment may be numbered. Southwest, which stayed on the sidelines during past efforts to repeal the law, is now energetically spearheading the latest attempt in Congress to kill it. In the process, it has sparked a Texas-sized brawl with American Airlines, which is trying to block Southwest's effort and protect its Dallas-area franchise.

And what might seem a parochial spat could have implications far beyond North Texas -- including in California, where Southwest is the largest airline, with 630 daily flights from eight cities. None of those flights goes to Love Field or can connect to other cities through Dallas.

But that's likely to change if the Wright Amendment is repealed.

Southwest Chairman Herb Kelleher, in a news conference last month, declined to identify which markets the airline would begin serving from Love Field if the law were repealed. But he left little doubt that California cities would be among the first added.

"Southwest is the largest carrier in Florida and California, and it can't fly to either state from Love Field," he said. If the law is repealed, "fares would go down and the number of travelers would increase."

In particular, opening up Love Field would mean more options for West Coast travelers who would be willing to connect through Dallas to take advantage of Southwest's discount fares, especially to destinations in Florida -- such as Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach -- and other Southeastern states, said Beth Harbin, a spokeswoman for the airline.

Because of its low fares, Southwest claims that lifting restrictions at Love would save travelers more than $700 million a year on flights to and from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including $36 million in savings in the Los Angeles area alone.

Rival American Airlines, the nation's biggest carrier, disputes those claims, noting that airfares have been falling at Dallas-Fort Worth International in recent years and that Southwest's study failed to examine how it would affect fares at that airport if it moved there from Love.

But the airline has a history of pushing down fares wherever it launches service, a phenomenon known in the industry as the "Southwest effect." Steven Morrison, an economics professor at Northeastern University, says that when Southwest begins service on a particular route, rival carriers can be forced to cut their fares by as much as 50% to compete -- bad news in an industry in which older carriers already are being squeezed by rising fuel costs and falling fares.

Southwest's reputation as a low-fare carrier holds an undeniable appeal for travelers such as Darren Flynt of Glendora, who was waiting with his wife last week at Los Angeles International Airport for an American flight to Dallas.

"It would make it a lot easier" if the law were repealed, said Flynt, 29. "I don't know the specifics, but I knew there were restrictions. I've even tried to fly [Southwest] from Ontario to Love Field," only to find there were no flights.

The battle over the Love Field restrictions goes back to the mid-1970s, when Dallas-Forth Worth International opened about midway between its namesake cities on what was then largely open prairie. With the backing of local leaders, American and most other airlines moved their operations and passengers to Dallas-Forth Worth from Love Field, located a few miles north of downtown Dallas. But Southwest stayed put.

Southwest then was a small, regional airline, known for dressing its flight attendants in hot pants and serving as a kind of aerial bus service for Texans traveling around their expansive state. But after the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, Southwest began making plans to expand its reach well beyond the Lone Star State with more flights from Love Field.

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