President Bush signed legislation yesterday that frees Southwest Airlines to sell flights to Dallas' Love Field from its big hubs, such as Baltimore, with connections to smaller airports beyond Texas' neighboring states.
The new law repeals the Wright Amendment, a 27-year-old limitation on Love Field operations that was adopted to boost the fortunes of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport eight miles away.
It had been hampering the growth of Southwest, which has its headquarters at Love Field. Supporters say its repeal, which the discount giant had sought for years, will mean more choices for travelers to and from Dallas, and possibly lower fares.
Once the Federal Aviation Administration signs off on the legislation, travelers from the East Coast and other distant places will no longer have to buy two tickets to get to Love Field. They still will have to make a stop each way in one of nine states for the next eight years, as part of a compromise crafted to win over the Texas congressional delegation, the airports and the airlines. In 2014, airlines may begin offering direct flights.
The airline did not provide specifics yesterday on how service will change. That's to come within days of the FAA ruling on whether it can safely handle flight changes in Texas, said Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger.
"Once we have final approval, we'll be able to expose our customer to more Southwest destinations on a one-stop basis," she said. "We'll have a number of flights to start and we look forward to growing future schedules."
Eichinger noted that Baltimore passengers can expect some fare specials, in addition to savings from paying taxes and fees on only one ticket to Love Field.
The Wright Amendment was designed to maintain Love Field as a regional airport only, so passengers had to buy one flight to a neighboring airport and then buy a separate ticket to Love Field.
But aside from those specials, the impact on East Coast travelers may not be that great, at least initially, according to a fare watcher and Southwest's biggest rival in Dallas, American Airlines.
Tom Parsons, chief executive of Bestfares.com, an online fare finder, said Washington and Baltimore airports already have a choice of low-fare carriers that can get passengers most places, including Dallas-Fort Worth, for $218 or less.
The Southwest fares to Love Field will probably be in the $158 to $218 range, he said.
"Many cities would love to have Baltimore and Washington's problem of a lot of discount service," he said.
"That said, it never hurts to have another competitor on popular routes. It makes the U.S.A. a little bit smaller and still a little bit cheaper," Parsons said.
A spokesman for American, which has a hub at Dallas-Fort Worth many times the size of Southwest's Love Field operation, said he expected the move will have some impact on American's Texas customer base the most because Love Field is closer to downtown Dallas and may become the choice of many travelers.
American, as well as Continental Airlines, also offer a small number of flights from Love Field and will no longer be subject to the Wright Amendment under the compromise agreement - which reduces gates at Love Field, limits hours of operation and bans international flights.
But Tim Wagner, an American spokesman, said little would change for the airline's East Coast customers.
Wagner said the carrier expects that most travelers from Baltimore and elsewhere will still want the convenience of direct flights to Dallas-Fort Worth rather than flights to Love Field on any airline.
"For people who choose to fly on American Airlines from the East Coast, really the only thing that will change is that you'll be able to go to an airport eight miles from Dallas-Fort Worth," Wagner said. "And you'll have to make a stop somewhere like St. Louis on the way."