07:28 AM CST on Thursday, February 9, 2006
By ROBERT DODGE / The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn are quietly urging airline and government leaders in North Texas to come up with a compromise on allowing long-haul flights at Dallas Love Field.
The Texas Republicans have delivered a clear and sober warning: Figure out a solution that is acceptable to the region, or Congress might overturn the Wright amendment in a fashion that could be distasteful to almost everyone.
"It is time for the local people who are affected to come together where we are driving this rather than being surprised every year," Ms. Hutchison said.
The senators pointed to last year's surprise – the addition of Missouri as the eighth state that can be served with interstate commercial flights from Love – as evidence that Congress is ready and willing to act.
And both lawmakers predicted that more senators would try to add their states this year.
"We are outnumbered," Mr. Cornyn said.
So far, there does not appear to be any organized process to produce a regional compromise. Local negotiations have been proposed before, though not since the landscape shifted with the Missouri move.
An effort last year to create a community consensus by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, fell flat. (Ms. Johnson later said she wanted to retain Wright and would support shutting Love to commercial traffic if the law were repealed.)
Dallas Mayor Laura Miller's proposals for some kind of compromise similarly fell on deaf ears, as did offers last summer from Mr. Cornyn that he would serve as a mediator.
Indeed, reaching any kind of deal would be difficult because the concerned parties appear to be clinging to hardened positions.
American Airlines maintains that the 1979 Wright amendment is the compromise and that Southwest Airlines should compete at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
"You need to look at the history of this issue ... and you need to talk about all the options including closing Love Field as was originally intended," said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for the Fort Worth-based carrier.
Southwest said it was willing to negotiate but had no one to talk to.
"Unfortunately, no one other than Southwest has been willing to come to the table," said Ed Stewart, a spokesman for the discounter, which wants to serve its nationwide network from Love Field, its home airport.
Fort Worth Mayor Michael Moncrief declined to comment on any effort by the Texas senators for a compromise. The city of Fort Worth has held that any expansion of Love flights is unacceptable.
In Dallas, Ms. Miller declined to discuss the Wright amendment but wrote in an e-mail message, "I've said for the past year that a local solution needs to be found on Wright, and I still believe that."
Kevin Cox, D/FW Airport's chief operating officer, said the airport "is really not in a position to discuss this matter at this time."
Flights to Missouri became permissible after Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., used his position as chairman of a Senate subcommittee to add a provision to a transportation spending bill.
The provision opened interstate flights to Missouri, adding it to a short list consisting of Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., made a similar but unsuccessful attempt to add his state shortly before Congress adjourned for the holidays.
Eager to join parade
With American and Southwest now competing for passengers for flights between North Texas and Missouri, lawmakers and industry lobbyists think other senators will be eager to add their states.
Southwest launched new flights from Love Field to Kansas City and St. Louis in December, with one-way fares as low as $49. American announced it also would start flying from Love on March 2 to both cities, and it is adding regional jet service from the city airport to San Antonio and Austin.
Although fares have crept up slightly since Southwest's launch, they still represent a bargain compared with the $300 to $599 one-way fares American previously charged from D/FW.
"There is going to be some serious Missouri envy," Southwest's Mr. Stewart said.
Mr. Cornyn urged the chief executives of American and Southwest to reach a compromise last year. Asked about American's continued unwillingness to negotiate, he said: " I do not think that is realistic."
Industry officials familiar with the discussions said Ms. Hutchison has made it clear she is frustrated with the issue and wants it resolved. And while Congress is just getting its legislative year under way, the two senators believe there is limited time before forces on Capitol Hill move to expand flights at Love on their own terms. "She wants to get it settled," an airline lobbyist said on condition of anonymity.
For now, Ms. Hutchison appears to have taken the lead on the issue, industry officials said. And so far, no one based in the region has emerged as a leader to bring together the disparate parties.
"There is not that person," Ms. Hutchison said.
Ms. Hutchison said she had been warning local leaders since the Missouri provision was enacted, but she would not detail recent discussions.
She did allow that she had discussed the issue with the mayors of both cities and the senior executives at the two airlines.
Mr. Cornyn said he discussed the issue with Ms. Miller as recently as Friday in Dallas.
Mr. Cornyn said he wanted to co-author a letter with Ms. Hutchison asking fellow members of Congress to back off Wright proposals. The idea is to give leaders in North Texas time to craft a compromise.
A little progress first
Ms. Hutchison said she wanted to make more progress in getting substantive talks under way before seeking a legislative moratorium.
"I am trying to get the local people to a point where I know there will be a chance that something will happen," she said.
Lobbyists and lawmakers speculate that a compromise could provide for a phased repeal of Wright, gradually adding states over time. A compromise also might allow airlines to sell tickets from Love to make connections in the states where flights are now permissible.
So far, key House members have not been included in discussions.
Republican Reps. Jeb Hensarling of Dallas and Sam Johnson of Plano, who are co-sponsoring a bill that would repeal Wright, have not heard from either senator. And Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, who has led opposition to expanding Love flights, also has not been included.
"Mr. Barton feels that any change in the current legal standing has no chance if relevant members of the House are not included in preliminary discussions," spokeswoman Karen Modlin said.
Letting Congress decide would be odious to all, Hutchison, Cornyn say