Senate Commerce panel to weigh repeal of Wright amendment

A subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will hear testimony today on whether a small airport in Texas should stay under a flight restriction placed on it for more than 20 years.

The subcommittee on aviation will hear testimony from airport and airline executives as well as a bipartisan-bicameral panel of members who have come down on both sides of the debate over whether the Wright Amendment should be repealed, which would effectively lift flight restrictions on Dallas Love Field.

The hearing is the first to consider the complete repeal of the amendment since 1991.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R- Texas), the sponsor of the House bill advocating the repeal of the Wright Amendment, described the hearing as "solid progress" but "not exactly a touchdown."

He said his testimony would focus on his view that the amendment was anti-consumer and anti-competition, costing North Texas citizens disproportionately more to travel than the rest of the country.

Hensarling said he hoped his House colleagues would follow suit and holding a hearing to discuss the issue in the near future.

"This is clearly a case where the Senate is taking the lead," he said.

Hensarling's bill would eliminate the Wright Amendment, a 1979 ordinance that restricts flights out of Dallas Love Field to Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Another amendment passed later added service to Kansas, Alabama and Mississippi.

The Hensarling bill currently has 41 co-sponsors, six of whom are from Texas. Another bill introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) would add Tennessee to the list of unrestricted flights, but would not remove any other restrictions from the field.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) introduced the Senate version of the bill and sits on the subcommittee along with co-sponsors Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.). The Ensign bill has eight total co-sponsors.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) will also testify at the hearing; Love Field is located in her district. She has expressed her concern about how lifting the restrictions might adversely affect the local economy and urged her colleagues that the dispute should be resolved at that level.

"This is a divisive debate that could and should be avoided," said Johnson. "The Wright Amendment was intended to provide a fair and equitable solution to a local dispute and was agreed to by Southwest Airlines, the City of Dallas, the City of Fort Worth, the [Dallas Fort Worth] Airport Authority, and related constituency groups."

She added, "This balance between our two airports has served the North Texas community well."

Hensarling said, "An act of Congress put [the amendment in place], only an act of Congress can take it away."

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) has also vocalized her opposition to repealing the 1979 restriction and will hold a pre-hearing stakeout this morning with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Johnson and Kevin Cox, the chief operating officer and senior executive vice president of D/FW to reiterate their stand against the repeal. All will testify before the subcommittee.

Sen. Kit Bond (R- Mo.) said in a statement: "Twenty five years ago the Wright Amendment was passed to prevent Southwest Airlines from offering nationwide service out of Dallas' Love Field… I am pleased that I was able to exempt Missouri from this anti-competitive, anti-consumer policy."

Panelist will also include executives from Southwest and American Airlines, the two airlines whose turf battle is at the heart of the issue. 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. Executives at DFW say repealing the amendment would hurt the airport financially and would strain local infrastructure.