Monday, January 16, 2006

Airport Wars

Fly into Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and you might get lost. Fly into Dallas Love Field and you will be awash in propaganda.

Signs everywhere implore travelers to "Set Love Free," a political message from Southwest that has implications for free markets everywhere.

Most people don't know this, but Dallas is the center of the commercial airplane universe. It is home to two of the remaining national heavyweights (airlines not currently under bankruptcy protection), American Airlines and Southwest Airlines. Dallas is the ideal central hub for both coasts in the southern U.S. region.

American Airlines calls the sleek DFW home. Southwest proudly hails from aging Love Field in spite of local hostility.

The battle between DFW and Love is political, social, emotional, personal, communal, and, above all, the worst kind of corporate pettiness and government interference.

As a journalist, I love it.

Here's a short-hand history:

- Between 1921-1929, a group of tiny mail-carrying airlines are consolidated to form one large aviation group. It grows each decade, eventually becoming one of the largest intercontinental airlines in the world. Today, American Airlines is the standard of ease of travel.

- in 1967, tiny Southwest Airlines decides to accomodate quaint Love Field by using it for low-fare puddle-jumpers. The idea is to turn a profit by providing low-fare air fare for the common man. AA, among other DFW tenants and parties of interest, tie up the upstart company in lawsuits, nearly bankrupting Southwest before its first flight.

- A battered Southwest finally takes off in 1971 from Dallas Love Field, unkowingly pitting itself against the sleak corporate giant soon to move in to the south of the city. The 70s become the age of airline deregulation, and Southwest becomes the biggest beneficiary. It is the anti-Pan Am, with an emphasis on slow growth and economic prudence.

- Several airline officials are indicted for attempting to bankrupt Southwest Airlines.

- DFW officially opens in 1974. American Airlines officially moves its national headquarters to DFW in 1978 on the cusp of fully formed industry deregulation.

- U.S. House leader Jim Wright tacks on an addendum to unrelated bill that makes it illegal to fly non-stop out of Love Field beyond its four-state region. Furthermore, it is a felony to advertise connecting flights in the region to or from Love Field. The name of the bill -- and I'm not kidding -- was labeled the International Air Transportation Competition Act of 1979.

- Three small planes are purchased by enterprising Phoenix locals and form America West. The low-fare common man airlines revolution takes hold. The hole in the dam busts open and small puddle-jumping airlines crop up out of nowhere.

- Southwest explodes across the country, outlasting all of its upstart cousins on the back of smart management and a legacy of established airlines who waited too long to recognize they were in direct competition. In hindsight, it was probably the only airline that understood how to play the airline game of the late 20th century. However, Southwest operates like tiny charter operation in its home state because of federal anti-competition laws expertly crafted to hinder only Southwest. U.S. Senator Richard Shelby successfully passes an amendment that excludes Alabama from the Wright Amendment provisions. Mississippi and Kansas are added to Shelby's bill.

- Dallas City Council attempts to put the death knell in Love Field in 2001 by creating a master plan that caps growth at 32 gates. Love Field is neutralized. However, a movement begins around the country to allow Southwest to fly directly from Love Field to their home states. Four years later, Southwest goes public with their attempt to overturn the Wright Amendment, and a slow-burning wick is suddenly becoming a hot national issue. What congressman is going to turn down money to represent a commercial cause that creates competition and lowers air fare for their constituents?

Locally, however, politicians are desperate to protect their financial investment in DFW. They don't really care about air fare. They want revenue, and DFW is where it's at. There seems to be little gratitude Southwest is one of the state's biggest employers, including 5,500 in Dallas alone, and could easily have set up shop elsewhere. Phoenix Sky Harbor made a lot of sense, but Southwest has remained sold out on Texas -- perhaps in no small spart to spite their enemies. AA consultants have continually testified before Congress that an expanding second airport would hurt the Dallas economy. However, independent economists have been informing local politicos to began preparing for a third airport.

As Southwest takes this fight to the national stage, it appears it will finally be settled in the next few years. It's the first big free market battle of the 21st Century, and the precedent of the outcome will undoubtedly determine how America views its own economic philosophy for many years to come.

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