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Senate panel to hear 'Right to Fly' arguments


When a senior executive with Southwest Airlines flew to Washington for a congressional hearing this week, he hopped an afternoon flight from the airline's home airport in Dallas to Baltimore, landing briefly in Little Rock, Ark.

It was an itinerary that would be illegal for a passenger from Dallas or Baltimore to book.

Scheduled commercial flights from Southwest's headquarters at Dallas Love Field airport are limited by federal law to airports in seven nearby states, with no connecting flights allowed. And that's what Southwest's Ron Ricks and several other executives went to Capitol Hill to talk about.

The "Wright Amendment" is a 26-year-old law aimed at limiting growth at Love Field and promoting and protecting neighboring Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

Many in Texas don't want to mess with the economic success of the law, but Southwest has been on a yearlong campaign to repeal it, arguing that passengers across the country would save at least $1.8 billion a year when flying to Dallas or through Dallas to other destinations.

A Senate subcommittee will hold a hearing on the "Right to Fly Act" tomorrow. Although lawmakers say a big change isn't likely this year, Southwest is hailing the public airing as a big step toward transforming its Texas problem into a national movement.

"We got a hearing, and a lot of people said that couldn't be done in the first year," said Ricks, Southwest's senior vice president for law, airports and public affairs. "When we started this, the challenge we had was this: Only a handful of people in Texas and an even smaller number in D.C. even knew what the Wright amendment was."

Typically, lawmakers would defer to a state's congressmen and senators to sort out such local affairs. But the Wright amendment has split the delegation, as well as managers from Love Field and Dallas-Fort Worth International and the airlines that dominate them, Southwest at Love Field and American Airlines at DFW.

American has done its share of lobbying inside and outside Washington, but Southwest officials have pushed the issue not only with lawmakers, but also directly to the public through a Web site, and slogans such as "Wright is Wrong" that are plastered on everything from their news releases to their workers' golf shirts.

It's not clear how many passengers are paying attention to the battle for and against the Wright amendment, named for former Speaker of the House Jim Wright, who was from Fort Worth and joined area leaders to help Dallas-Fort Worth become the region's main base for national and international flights.

The amendment was passed by Congress in 1979, a year after federal airline deregulation aimed at increasing competition and long before Southwest became a national discount giant. The Love Field restrictions are unique.

Southwest has won backing in newspaper editorials and from more than 40 House members and seven senators. Nearly everyone agrees that's not enough.

"There are a lot of bigger fish to fry in terms of congressional interest," said Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst and consultant. "One of those important things are unfunded airline pensions."

Mann said Southwest has plenty of other places to expand outside its home base and can continue to grow as it works to build consensus in Texas and Washington.

The push could hinge on lawmakers such as Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican who has become an advocate of repealing the Wright amendment.

Las Vegas, a spokesman points out, is Southwest's biggest hub with about 200 flights a day. Love Field has about 110 Southwest flights a day, and the repeal would allow that number to nearly double.

"The senator is a free-market advocate," said Jack Finn, a spokesman for Ensign, who sponsored the Senate bill. "He saw a situation where customers weren't being served because of regulations that seemed to be outdated and counterproductive."

The House and Senate bills have attracted other members from states that have a big Southwest presence, including Arizona and Maryland, and those with a growing presence, such as Pennsylvania and Florida.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican, is seeking this year to add his state to the list of seven that have direct service from Love Field. St. Louis is a Southwest city.

DFW, American Airlines and their advocates are putting up a battle.

American, which has more than 800 daily flights from DFW - more than seven times the number Southwest has from Love Field - has attracted the attention of lawmakers concerned about jobs and service to Texas.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, cautioned her colleagues to move slowly and consider the impact of repealing the Wright amendment. Beyond tomorrow's hearing, she is calling for an independent economic study.

"I will work with Senator Ensign to ensure we move forward appropriately so that all aspects of the Wright amendment are examined," she said in a statement.

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