Senators show Texas airport some love

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) weighed in yesterday in the fight to repeal restrictions on flights out of a Texas airport.

Joined by Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Sam Brownback (Kan.), Ensign introduced legislation that would lift the restrictions on Love Field in Dallas, effectively repealing some of the provisions of the 1979 Wright Amendment, which was an attempt to protect Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which was new at the time, from competition. Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) is the only Democratic co-sponsor of the repeal legislation.

During the press conference, Ensign contended that the Wright Amendment is more than a Texas issue.

“This is a free-market issue with dramatic ramifications not just for Texas but for passengers throughout the entire country,” Ensign said in a statement. “The Wright Amendment is an idea whose time has gone. With approval of this bill, Americans will have more options and fares will be lower.”

Eileen McMenamin, a spokeswoman for McCain, said, “Senator McCain thinks it is an antiquated law and that by repealing it consumers will have more options in air travel.

“Senator McCain believes the Wright Amendment is a protectionist restriction and an arbitrary constraint that limits consumers’ choices in destinations and fares, [including] Arizonans who want to fly between Dallas and Phoenix on Southwest Airlines, for bigger fare savings to consumers.”

The American Right to Fly Act will open the rest of the United States to flights from Love Field, which are now restricted to seven surrounding states, and would eliminate a Wright provision “that prohibits ‘through ticketing,’ the practice of flying to a location within the Wright perimeter and then continuing on the same flight to destinations beyond,” according to an Ensign release.

Texas Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R) and John Cornyn (R) urged caution last month against moving too quickly on repealing the Wright Amendment, expressing concern that an immediate repeal could have a negative effect on the economy. Both said they are reserving judgment on the subject until further research on the topic could be completed.

At the heart of the issue is a turf battle between two major airlines: Southwest and American.

Southwest Airlines, based at Love Field, contends that the amendment is obsolete and serves only to benefit American Airlines, which occupies much of the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) airport.

“That’s certainly a move in the right direction,” said Beth Harbin, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines. “Since the House bill was introduced, we have seen a groundswell of support. … It’s wonderful for us. We know that these senators have the people’s interest at heart.”

Kevin Cox, chief operating officer for DFW International Airport said in a statement he was not surprised by the Ensign legislation but was confident that many other Senators and members would “understand repealing the Wright Amendment is a bad idea that will have detrimental effects on our communities and economy.”

He added, “We believe a better approach is for Southwest Airlines to join with us to grow the North Texas economy and benefit all of our citizens by beginning service at DFW…We feel that together we’re stronger.”

Southwest turned down an offer from DFW of free rent for a year at the airport and more than $22 million in incentives. American Airlines defends the Wright Amendment, arguing that its repeal would hurt the North Texas economy.

In a July 2-5 poll conducted by DFW, 85 percent of passengers said they would like Southwest Airlines to fly out of DFW. The airport also contends that the addition of Southwest would add more than 200,000 jobs to the North Texas economy.

The Wright Amendment restricts flights out of Love Field to Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Another amendment passed later added service to Kansas, Alabama and Mississippi.

In May, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) introduced the Right to Fly Act to repeal the Wright amendment. In a statement yesterday, he praised Ensign’s bill and noted that “although Senator Ensign’s bill takes a different approach from the Right to Fly Act. … I strongly support any effort to repeal the Wright Amendment.”

Hensarling’s bill has 28 co-sponsors from 17 states.

The introduction of Hensarling’s bill split the Texas delegation on the issue. North Texas Republican Reps. Kay Granger, Michael Burgess, Joe Barton and Kenny Marchant have cited economic concerns and airfare costs as a reason to keep Love Field under its restrictions.

Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), like several other Lone Star State legislators, has not taken a position on the Wright Amendment.