The road to deregulation is often marred by unanticipated pitfalls. Yet such is the case in a saga over airline deregulation in the Dallas-Forth Worth market. The story begins over forty years ago, and its final chapter is now being played out in the courts. In 1978, Congress decided to abolish a hoary New Deal agency, the Civil Aeronautics Board, which was created by the Civil Aeronautics Act (1938) to determine routes and to set prices for airline passenger traffic throughout the United States. But the New Deal law’s price setting powers were quickly used by airlines to suppress competition among themselves, so that interstate fares were consistently higher for short hauls than intrastate fares were for longer ones.
The deregulation movement of the late 1970s had its intended consequence of hastening competition among airlines. But it also created a backlash in one market, Dallas-Fort Worth, located in the backyard of then-Speaker of the House Jim Wright. Wright feared that vigorous competition to the new Dallas/Fort Worth airport (DFW) would come from the Love Field airport, the home of the upstart Southwest Airlines, which was now poised for the first time to expand operations into the interstate market. Wright thought that flights from Love Field would reduce the air traffic at DFW, which in turn would reduce the revenues needed to fund the debt service on DFW bonds. So in 1979, he induced Congress to pass the Wright Amendment, which perversely restricted all flights out of Love Field outside of Texas and four contiguous states—Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma—to aircraft that had 56 or fewer seats.
Unfortunately, this bizarre and protectionist legislation received an undeserved constitutional blessing from the courts in 1991. But local outcry against this rigged system continued, so that this already tangled history then took another bizarre turn. By 2004, Southwest mounted an effective campaign to “free Love Field,” which prompted American Airlines to make Southwest an offer it could not refuse. Both companies, the two airlines concluded, would be better off by cartelizing the market by dividing a limited number of gates at Love Field and DFW between them. In order to put this plan into action, however, the two airlines, the DFW Airport Authority, and the two cities (Dallas and Fort Worth) had to reduce the capacity of Love Field. They decided to do so by getting rid of twelve state-of-the-art gates—six at the main terminal and six on Lemmon Avenue—serving Love Field, which were owned by the company Love Terminal Partners (LTP). Flights from these gates could crater the American/Southwest alliance. So these five parties (Southwest, American Air, Dallas, Fort Worth, and DFW) prevailed on Congress in October 2006 to pass the Wright Amendment Reform Act (WARA) which provided that “The City of Dallas shall reduce as soon as practicable, the number of gates available for passenger air service at Love Field to no more than 20 gates. Thereafter, the number of gates available for such service shall not exceed a maximum of 20 gates.” And shortly thereafter, Dallas condemned LTP’s gates and promptly razed them. That’s one way to ground the competition.