23.5.05

Little Rock Neutral On Wright

Most of this has been covered here. It takes a little longer for the telegraph notices to make their way to central Arkansas. But they mean well.

LR in front row at airline battle


BY EDWARD KLUMP
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Two of the top carriers at Little Rock National are locked in a Texas showdown that involves the Arkansas airport’s top nonstop destination, Dallas/Fort Worth.


Southwest Airlines wants to end restrictions on flights to and from Dallas Love Field, where it seeks an expanded presence.


American Airlines, which has its main hub at the larger Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, says it would be harmed if limits on Love Field are lifted.


Little Rock National Airport, Adams Field, has nonstop flights to both airports in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. It isn’t involved directly in the Texas ruckus, but its flight schedules could be affected by the outcome.


Philip Launius, a Little Rock airport spokesman, said the facility is remaining neutral as a decision is awaited in Texas. "I’m not so worried about the effect in north Texas as I am in Little Rock," Launius said.


Southwest carried about 34 percent of Little Rock National’s passengers last year, while American carried about 20 percent. That made Southwest the airport’s top carrier, with American at No. 3 behind Delta Air Lines.


American uses regional jets flying under its American Eagle and AmericanConnection brands at Arkansas’ busiest airport, while Southwest uses larger Boeing 737 jets.


From Little Rock, Southwest has seven nonstop flights a day to Dallas Love. American Eagle has a dozen nonstop departures a day from Little Rock to Dallas/Fort Worth International, also known as DFW. Schedules for both airlines can vary on weekends.


Meanwhile, the airport debate is heating up in Texas.


Numerous news articles have been written about Southwest’s desire to be rid of the Wright Amendment, which was named for former U.S. Rep. Jim Wright, D-Texas, and set flight restrictions more than a quarter of a century ago. That federal legislation stated that flights to and from Dallas Love on full-size planes could only go to points in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.


In the 1990s, Alabama, Mississippi and Kansas were added, although Southwest still doesn’t fly to Kansas.


Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Gary Kelly, Southwest’s chief executive officer, is pushing for Congress to terminate the Wright Amendment. "Mr. Kelly’s move pits the feisty Southwest against its much-larger hometown rival, American," the article’s author stated.


Southwest is Dallas-based, while American is Fort Worth-based.


The battle has gone to the Internet, where dueling sites tackle the Love Field and DFW debate: www. setlovefree. com, run by Southwest; and www. keepdfwstrong. com, operated by DFW and the North Texas Commission, a nonprofit economic development organization. Still, no change appears imminent.


The Wright Amendment "geographically shackles us, it punishes the free enterprise system and it’s just absolutely absurd," said Ed Stewart, a Southwest spokesman.


He added: "It’s contrary to how business should be run in [the] United States of America."
Tim Wagner, an American spokesman, disagreed. Competing airlines are needed in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, not competing airports, he said. "The Wright Amendment applies to all airlines equally because it is not specifically aimed at any one airline, it is aimed at an airport," Wagner said.


So what could Little Rock expect if the Wright Amendment were repealed?


The answer depends on who is asked. "With the potential split of our operations, a repeal of the Wright Amendment would not only lead to a reduction in frequencies to smaller markets, but potentially a complete loss of service to those markets and some international destinations," American’s Wagner said in an e-mail.


Termination of the amendment would result in American scheduling flights to Love Field and DFW, Wagner said in an interview. That could mean Little Rock’s 12 nonstop departures to DFW could be reduced, even when counting flights to Love Field and DFW, he said.


Officials with the DFW airport were among those who released a study recently that said repeal of the Wright Amendment could cost that facility more than 200 flights a day and 21 million passengers annually. American said it agreed with the study, and that the figures might even be conservative.


Beth Harbin, a Southwest spokesman, describes a different scenario. She said additional passengers possibly could come through Little Rock if the Wright Amendment were eliminated. "If I were allowed to really open it up, volume at your airport conceivably could increase," she said.


Interest might exist for flights from Dallas to Little Rock and then on to, say, Chicago Midway, St. Louis or Baltimore/Washington International, she said.


That isn’t possible now using one flight number or ticket, because of the Wright Amendment.
Harbin added that "the story is much more dramatic in markets that do not have access to Dallas at all, like St. Louis."


Another possibility is that unrestricted Love Field flights could give Little Rock travelers more options for getting to destinations through Love Field, possibly on the East or West coasts, said Terry Trippler, a Minnesota-based airline expert. "It could suddenly open up... a whole country of destinations out of Little Rock on Southwest Airlines," he said.


For now, people who fly Southwest between Little Rock National and Love Field have limited connecting options.


But paying travelers can fly from Little Rock to Love Field and then on to a place the Wright Amendment allows such as Albuquerque, N. M., on one ticket.


Once in New Mexico, they can change planes and use a different ticket to fly to a destination in Cafifornia.


Users of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards frequent-flier program have options that paying travelers don’t have. For example, a passenger could fly from Love Field to Little Rock to St. Louis on one ticket, although he would have to change planes in Little Rock. "You are considered nonrevenue, which means that you can get around a Wright Amendment schedule and fly on one ticket all the way through, meaning you don’t have to have two different tickets," said Lisa Anderson, director of customer advocacy for Southwest. "But that still doesn’t let you stay on a plane when the flight number changes."


Whether the Wright Amendment will survive remains an unanswered question. A spokesman for Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., the chairman of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, said that Bond’s staff has been gathering information on the issue.

Copyright © 2001-2004 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. All rights reserved.

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