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Group opposes Wright

North Dallas Chamber says lifting law would boost city's economy

Thursday, May 19, 2005
By ERIC TORBENSON / The Dallas Morning News

A powerful Dallas business group said Thursday that the Wright amendment is bad for the city's economy and its repeal would provide a billion-dollar-a-year economic boost.

The law is choking Dallas' growth by keeping airfares high and hurting the city's convention business and tourism, according to a task force from the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce.

The group challenged the city to "take back its airport" by lobbying to gradually lift the restrictions at Dallas Love Field that limit commercial flights to nearby states.

"I don't know of any other major city with two airports that treats one like a crown jewel and the other like a red-headed stepchild," said Sam Coats, a member of the chamber's task force.

"Dallas needs to utilize its asset," said Mr. Coats, a former executive at defunct Braniff Airways as well as at Southwest Airlines Co., by far the dominant carrier at Love Field.

Southwest, which wants the federal law repealed so it can fly around the country from Love Field, praised the chamber's stance.

"The North Dallas Chamber's opinion reinforces the sentiment of the flying public that North Texas deserves access to lower fares through repeal of the Wright amendment," said Southwest spokeswoman Ginger Hardage.

But American Airlines Inc., which along with Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport has strongly opposed any changes to the law, called the chamber's thinking shortsighted.

"Southwest wants Dallas to cut off its arm," said American spokesman Tim Wagner. "The North Dallas Chamber is suggesting they start one finger at a time."

The chamber, which represents such major local employers as Texas Instruments Inc., took six months interviewing airlines, airports and other parties affected by the Wright law.

It concluded that the law limits Dallas' appeal as a place to do business. Among the task force's recommendations:

•Gradual repeal of Wright restrictions over two to five years. Southwest would add service, average fares for the region would drop and the local economy would benefit.
•Immediate lifting of rules that require passengers traveling beyond Wright states to purchase two tickets. Often, this offsets any fare advantage.
•Keeping the Love Field master plan to govern growth there. The plan cannot be changed simply because there's no Wright amendment, said Steve Joiner, who headed the chamber task force.

For now, chamber officials said, they're more concerned about Love Field shrinking.

Love Field has lost two of its four airlines since the master plan came into effect in 2001. Southwest has cut its daily flights to 117 from about 145.

Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly said this week that more cuts could come if the Wright law stays in place. And credit agencies have cut Love Field's bond ratings as passenger traffic has dropped.

Countering D/FW

The chamber's statement Thursday counters D/FW's primary argument that tinkering with the Wright amendment would harm the region's economy.

D/FW executives regularly refer to their airport as the region's main economic engine.
"D/FW has broad business community support across North Texas among those who understand the ramifications of a weakened economic engine," said Jeff Fegan, the airport's chief executive.

"We know people are beginning to understand that is not about low fares, but about a single airline trying to dictate public policy and keep new airline competition out of North Texas," he said.

D/FW released a study this month showing it could lose up to 35 percent of its passenger traffic and 204 daily flights if Love Field were opened up to long-haul flights.

The chamber's statement acknowledges the importance of D/FW, saying it would remain the region's dominant airport and the sole facility for international flights. The plan also seeks to soften any financial blow to D/FW by staggering the repeal over several years.

Repeal of the Wright amendment would not threaten D/FW's ability to pay back several billion dollars in revenue bonds used to finance its new international terminal and Skylink train system, but it would raise costs for its airline tenants and dissuade other carriers from using D/FW, airport officials said earlier this month.

Officials undecided

The chamber's findings didn't seem overly persuasive to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who had called for more study on the Wright issue.

"Sen. Hutchison appreciates the chamber's hard work and will carefully study their findings," her spokesman said. "However, in the chamber's own report, they state that the financial implications of repealing the amendment may have significant near-term implications. That is exactly what Sen. Hutchison wants to avoid."

Phillip Jones, chief executive of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, said airfare costs are something his sales team monitors, but "it's not the main reason keeping business away."

Under review

Dallas Mayor Laura Miller was reviewing the chamber's conclusions, her spokesman said.

The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce has long backed the Wright amendment and passed a resolution supporting keeping the law in the place. A call to the Greater Dallas Chamber wasn't returned Thursday.

The North Dallas chamber wants to avoid lawsuits, hoping that leaders will broker a long-term plan to use both airports.

"We don't need a donnybrook in the metroplex at this time," Mr. Coats said. "We need level heads right now."

Staff writers Robert Dodge in Washington and Suzanne Marta in Dallas contributed to this report.


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