Editorial: Critics celebrate its demise but Wright Amendment served us well

Some folks, particularly media commentators who believe their long-held opinions have been validated, are celebrating the Oct. 13 demise of the ever-controversial Wright Amendment, the federal law that for more than three decades limited Southwest Airlines’ ability to offer nonstops flights outside Texas and nearby states.

Adopted in 1979 under the guidance of former Fort Worth Congressman Jim Wright, the Wright Amendment was designed to protect newly opened D/FW Airport from being undermined by low-cost Southwest flights out of Dallas’ Love Field. When plans for the new regional airport were launched some years earlier, area cities had agreed to eliminate commercial air service at potential competitor airports such as Love Field and Greater Southwest Airport in Fort Worth. Airlines that had been using those airports agreed to move their operations to centrally located D/FW.

But Southwest, a newcomer to the air travel scene when the regional airport opened in 1974, breached the region’s united front by insisting on flying in and out of Love Field and winning a series of court battles that confirmed its right to do so. Fearing that the vast investment of the region’s taxpayers in D/FW could be jeopardized by the fare-busting competition of Southwest’s Love Field enterprise, D/FW’s stakeholders pushed for protection and achieved it through the Wright Amendment.

Philosophically, an argument could be made that the law was an inappropriate intrusion by government into the air travel marketplace. But there was much at stake – the future of the entire region hinged on the success of the new airport.

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Over time, as D/FW cemented its dominance and lured American Airlines away from its New York base to become D/FW’s most prominent resident air carrier, the Wright Amendment came under increasing criticism as anti-competitive and no longer necessary to the regional airport’s prosperity. What this criticism overlooked was that Southwest’s virtual monopoly at Love Field gave it an unfair advantage in any competition with American and other airlines operating out of D/FW. The Wright Amendment simply leveled the playing field.

But the critics persisted and finally, in 2006, Congress repealed the Wright Amendment, easing some restrictions immediately but maintaining the ban on nonstop flights until October 2014. The downside for Love Field and Southwest: Love’s gate capacity was reduced from 32 gates to 20 and international flights are prohibited.

Wright Amendment supporters have reconciled themselves to the law’s repeal but are concerned now that Southwest will turn its attention to striking down the Love Field gate limit and the international flight ban. With Southwest no longer an upstart, low-fare carrier but rather a thriving, big-time airline that’s gearing up to expand its nationwide footprint, D/FW and the newly merged American-US Airways airline that is the airport’s heart and soul are justified in fearing unfair poaching of flights and passengers.

Contrary to predictions by the Wright Amendment’s critics, the expiration of the law does nothing to reduce air fares and in fact solidifies Southwest’s monopoly position at Love, a position that can’t possibly benefit air travelers.

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None of that matters to detractors of the Wright Amendment, of course, who at long last have prevailed. What remains to be seen is whether their victory really is a cause for celebration. Color us skeptical.