Tomorrow is a very big day for aviation in North Texas. For the first time since January 12, 1974, nonstop flights will be permitted anywhere in the country from Dallas Love Field. The new era officially kicks off at 6:40 A.M. tomorrow, when Southwest Airlines Flight 1013 takes off for Denver International Airport, marking the first flight by a full-sized passenger jet bound for an airport outside the modified Wright Amendment perimeter since DFW International Airport opened more than 40 years ago. In all, Southwest kicks off service to 7 new destinations tomorrow, 8 more on November 2nd, and 3 more in 2015; Virgin America adds three destinations tomorrow and one more (LGA) on the 28th. Needless to say, this is perhaps the biggest aviation news for North Texas since…well, the official opening of DFW on January 13, 1974, or exactly 40 years and 9 months to the day that Southwest kicks off its expanded service.
Love Field Before the Wright Amendment
DAL was a very, very different place in late 1973 on the eve of opening of DFW. The airport had more than 70 operating gates, saw frequent Boeing 747 service, and was the 8th busiest airport in the United States at the time, having carried more than 6.6 million passengers in 1973. The airport even boasted some unique features for the day, including Braniff’s “JETRAIL” system, which whisked passengers from the airport’s remote parking areas to the terminals via monorail. (I happened upon this video from 1970 which shows how the JETRAIL operated, which includes some fascinating shots of the Dallas skyline and the Love Field airfield 44 years ago.) But all of that changed abruptly in early 1974. The agreement which led to the construction of DFW also required all airlines operating out of DAL at the time the agreement was signed in the mid-1960s to terminate all service out of Love Field and move it to the new DFW. The then start-up Southwest Airlines escaped these restrictions, however, because it didn’t exist at the time the agreement was signed (Southwest didn’t begin operations until 1971), and the courts ruled in 1973 that the city couldn’t force airline to move. Given that Southwest operated only short-haul, intra-state flights at the time, the region decided to leave them alone for the time being. That changed, however, after airline deregulation in 1978, when Southwest first proposed providing interstate air service out of DAL beginning in 1979.
The Wright Amendment Era
Needless to say, there were a lot of folks that weren’t happy about Southwest spreading the LUV around. The city of Fort Worth and DFW’s rapidly growing tennant, American Airlines, were the primary drivers, but several neighborhood associations around Love Field, who had been agitating to close the airport entirely for years, also joined forces to stop Southwest’s expansion plans. This eventually led to the “Wright Amendment”, so named after Fort Worth Congressman and later Speaker of the House Jim Wright, which limited flights out of Love to Texas and the contiguous states of Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. Of note, even “through ticketing” was prohibited, meaning that to fly outside of the Wright perimeter, a passenger had to purchase two separate tickets, one to a city within the perimeter, and a second to a city outside – making it exceedingly difficult to pull off, especially for travelers checking bags. Over the ensuing 25 years, several attempts were made to chip away at the Wright restrictions, with a few states added to the Wright perimeter. An almost-successful attempt to operate unrestricted interstate service on reconfigured 56-seat airplanes was kicked off by the now defunct Legend Airlines (and to a lesser extent Delta) in 2000, but a scorched-earth fare war by AA, and later followed by the 9/11 terror attacks and ensuing economic downturn, spelled doom for the experiment, and pretty much all expanded service was scrapped by 2003.
The war heated up again a couple of years later, though, when Southwest Airlines began actively lobbying for an end to Wright Amendment restrictions. After much hemming and hawing, all parties finally agreed to a gradual wind-down of the restrictions, with “through ticketing” finally allowed in October, 2006, and a complete termination of Wright restrictions beginning October 13, 2014, or exactly eight years following the signing of the legislation by then President George W. Bush. The catch? Love Field was required to permanently contract from the 32 gates in existence in 2006 down to 20, with no possibility of expansion without further Congressional action. That left Southwest with 16 gates, American with 2, and Continental (now United) with 2. As part of the Department of Justice’s settlement to allow its merger with US Airways to proceed, American was ordered to surrender its two gates to Virgin America. This led to a confusing, contentious battle between Southwest, United, and Delta regarding the use of UA’s two Love Field gates, which was finally resolved last week for the time being. That brings us to today, without WN operating out of 16 of its own gates and one gate subleased from United, VX set to begin operations from its two gates tomorrow, and United sort of operating from its two. I say sort of, because UA is in fact subleasing one of its gates to Southwest, which in turn is allowing Delta to borrow some gate time to operate a handful of flights to Atlanta, and UA is also subleasing some gate time to little Seaport Airlines to operate EAS service to a few small airports in Arkansas. Whew.
The New Post-Wright Era
The Dallas Morning News has a good four-part series analyzing the end of Wright and the potential impact on the region. The News’ Terry Maxon also provides a comprehensive chart showing which cities win and lose schedule-wise with the lifting of the Wright restrictions, and Southwest’s eventual increase to 153 daily flights by early next year. Maxon also provides an analysis suggesting that by early January, capacity at Love will increase 151 percent from today, based on available seat miles. But will all of this really be the game changer that some haven been suggesting? In my opinion, probably not.
It’s important to keep in mind that while Love Field is a very different place today than it was on January 12, 1974, so is the entire Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in general. When DFW was built, there was at least some logical basis to ordering that all flights move to the new airport – DFW in 1974 was literally out in the middle of nowhere, equidistant to Dallas and Fort Worth, but convenient to pretty much nothing. The area’s freeway ring was still being constructed, and the massive sprawl now seen across Collin, Denton, and northern Tarrant Counties was in its infant stages. The city of Plano, where I currently live, was home to just under 18,000 people in 1970, and many booming suburbs like Flower Mound and Frisco barely even existed. Pretty much all commerce was conducted in the downtowns of Dallas and Fort Worth, but Dallas dwarfed the size of its western neighbor, and DAL was only a few miles northwest of downtown. In other words, if you were a business traveler, you wanted to fly out of DAL, not the far-flung DFW. You could at least make a credible argument that DFW wouldn’t have succeeded if flights out of the far more convenient DAL were an option.
Fast forward 40 years and 9 months, though, and things look very different. Plano is now home to more than 270,000 residents, and Collin and Denton Counties nearly 1.6 million, and the newly constructed Sam Rayburn Tollway means a fairly easy drive to DFW, whereas a trip to DAL means fighting often severe congestion on Central Expressway, the Dallas North Tollway, or Stemmons Freeway. Bedroom communities such as Flower Mound, Grapevine, and Southlake have boomed literally on the doorstep of DFW. And perhaps most importantly, all commerce no longer revolves around the Dallas central business district, with massive corporate parks in suburban locations like Las Colinas, Frisco, and Plano’s Legacy Business Park – all far more convenient to DFW than Love Field. In other words, what once was an airport in the sticks is now actually more conveniently located to much of the region’s population than its smaller competitor. Also, despite the hype being put out there by modern urbanists that neighborhoods close-in to the Dallas central business district are going to be the places to be in the future, the sheer numbers argue against it. In 2010, the population of ZIP codes 75201, 75202, 75204, 75207, 75219, and 75226 – roughly the gentrifying areas of Downtown, Uptown, Deep Ellum, Cedars, Cedar Springs, and the area of East Dallas just past Downtown and Cityplace – was slightly more than 72,000. While the city of Dallas has done a laudable job of revitalizing the city’s core over the last few years, it’s important to remember that the exurbs of Frisco and McKinney alone have ADDED approximately 38,000 residents since 2010, or more than half the ENTIRE population of Dallas’ core areas. Simply put, while the urban core may well be the future, the math simply doesn’t add up to suggest a massive influx of residents that will be a short drive from Love. (Before you bash me as a suburban relic for ignoring areas farther north like the M Streets and Park Cities, trying driving west down Mockingbird or Lovers Lane during the middle of the day to Love Field and see how many yuks you end up with.)
But even putting the population argument aside, the fact remains, what you see at Love Field early next year is pretty much what you’re going to get for the forseeable future because of that pesky 20-gate limit. According to FAA data, DFW completed 29.0 million passenger boardings in 2013, compared to 4.0 million at Love. Even if you increased that by the 151 percent increase in ASM, you’d end up with a little over 6 million enplanements, still a small fraction compared to DFW. WN and VX are already planning essentially maximum utilization of 18 of the airport’s 20 gates, planning between 9 and 9.5 departures per gate per day. And while DFW still has significant room to expand (rumors of Terminals F and G are swirling as we speak), Love is permanently stuck where it is today. DFW and AA might find DAL and WN to be minor nuisances, and so are generaly ambivalent to the Wright repeal, but you can bet the neighborhood associations around Love will continue to fight any efforts to ever remove the gate cap tooth and nail, even if a future Congress tries to intervene. Given the clout of the surrounding neighborhoods on the Dallas City Council, and the dysfunctional nature of City Hall to begin with, I just don’t see any realistic possibility of expansion in my lifetime.
So does this all mean that setting LUV free will have no meaningful impact? Not at all; both Southwest and Virgin America are set to offer important competition and alternatives for North Texas residents and visitors. In fact, I have trips planned on new nonstops by both airlines over the next couple of months, despite DFW being more convenient to my house than DAL. Those heading to downtown Dallas on day business will particularly benefit from being a 15-20 minute cab ride away (though the recent completion of DART’s Orange Line light rail to DFW Airport negates that advantage somewhat). But I just don’t see this being the massive innovation that has been hyped in some corners. Nevertheless, it’s time to celebrate. So gentlemen, head to your closet and find your best Pizza Hut-tablecoth checkered suit, and ladies, put on your best Marge Simpson beehive, and let’s party like it’s 1974 all over again.