Observation Deck

Wright Stuff

The remaining restrictions on interstate service with large aircraft at Love Field in Dallas are about to end.

A recent visit to North Texas indicated that something special is coming to Love Field in Dallas. One of the more noticeable pieces of evidence was the large billboard opposite the main entrance to the terminal area at DAL, which proclaimed that in only “13 Weeks the Wright Amendment is Going, Going, Gone”. I suspect that subsequent visitors will see a smaller integer on the advertising device; single digits aren’t that far off.

For that matter, there is a prominent three-dimensional display, complete with airplane models, labeled “Nonstop Love 10.13.14” on view in the lobby of Southwest Airlines’ headquarters. This device utilizes considerably more precision than the billboard, by indicating the number of days, hours and minutes remaining before this event. Continuing the “nonstop” theme, there were other billboards nearby the “Going, Going” one with the names of prominent cities that don’t have nonstop Southwest service from Love Field now, but will soon.

And no, the “Wright” referred to is neither Orville nor Wilbur, but Jim. And therein lies a tale, and yes, for the benefit of those in the airline industry reading this, tails, as in aircraft, are in play. At the time the passenger portion of the U.S. was “deregulated” in 1978, Jim Wright was the House (of Representatives) Majority Leader, a powerful political position. Mr. Wright represented the district which included the city of Fort Worth, Dallas’ neighbor to the immediate west.

Dallas and Fort Worth had worked together to construct DFW airport, located roughly midway between the two cities, to replace Love Field, which had become the predominant location for airline service in what is now called the Metroplex, although in prior times many carriers also served Fort Worth, as well. In order for the new, and expensive, DFW airport to succeed, all the airlines serving Love agreed to move to DFW when that airport opened, and discontinue service to DAL.

There was an exception, however. Intra-state airline Southwest had come into being in 1971, well after the other incumbents had signed the agreement to move, and thus, felt that it was under no obligation to do so when DFW opened in January 1974. And following a period of legal wrangling, Southwest was vindicated, and stayed at Love Field, although it continued to be restricted to service within the Lone Star State.

This restriction was lifted with deregulation, however, and caused concern that DFW would suffer significant traffic losses as a result of Southwest’s expansion outside Texas. Accordingly, a political solution was devised, with Jim Wright brokering the deal, and his name was attached to the relevant legislation. Interstate service with large aircraft at Love could only be operated to the four adjacent states: Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Furthermore, aircraft operating from Love to points in these states could not proceed beyond them on the same flight number. Thus, if a passenger from Dallas to Albuquerque wanted to continue to Los Angeles, he or she had to purchase two separate tickets for the journey, and exit the aircraft at ABQ, even if the same airplane was going to be used for the subsequent flight to LAX.

Jim Wright left the House of Representatives in 1989, and subsequently, a number of other states were added to the original ‘perimeter’ states. While DFW Airport continued to express concerns about opening up Love Field more fully, Southwest lobbied to make this happen. I recall at one point the marketing campaign channeling a popular song, with the phrase “If LUVin you is wrong, I don’t want to be Wright” included. Finally, in 2006, another political compromise resulted in the repeal of the Wright Amendment, although again, conditions were imposed.

DAL’s terminal (for large aircraft) would be reduced to a maximum of 20 gates (16 of which were to go to Southwest)…and the remaining restrictions on nonstop flights would not be lifted until 2014, eight years hence, and for domestic service only. In the interim, through flights and ticketing were permitted, however.

And thus, the countdown to October 13, 2014…after which things will be different (and Southwest will be joined at DAL by Virgin America). While this will likely have some short-term impact on DFW’s traffic, it should be noted that DFW is in the top ten airports worldwide, in terms of passenger traffic, according to data from Airports Council International; in North America, DFW was number four in passenger traffic in 2013, while DAL was number 46.

Southwest, of course, sums this up with another musical reference: “All you need is Love”. Should we read anything into the home of that band – the UK? Maybe things will change even more in the next thirty years or so…

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