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Flashback Fridays: A History of the Wright Amendment

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As we all know, litigation and legislation has played major role in the history of our Company.  Thankfully one of our Founders was a skilled negotiator and attorney.  The International Air Transportation Competition Act of 1979, commonly known as the Wright Amendment, arguably presented some of the most unique challenges any airline has ever encountered.  As we approach the conclusion of its restrictions, let’s take a look back at its origin.

Prior to the inception of Southwest Airlines, the cities of Dallas and Ft. Worth were directed by the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1968 to consolidate Love Field and Greater Southwest International Airport into a single regional airport.  As we did not begin operations until 1971, Southwest did not have an opportunity to take part in the agreement between the cities and other airlines which lead to the creation of Dallas/Ft. Worth Regional (now DFW International) Airport.  This did not stop the DFW Board and the cities of Dallas and Ft. Worth from attempting to compel our new Company to move, which lead to additional lawsuits, and the City of Dallas even making it a crime for Southwest to operate out of Love Field.  Eventually, a federal court ruled in our favor and preserved our right to continue operations at Love.  On January 13, 1974, the new DFW Airport officially opened and Southwest took over the gates previously used by American Airlines at Love Field.

Even wroghtafter DFW became the primary airport for North Texas, the litigation continued in an effort to force Southwest out of Love Field.  As the appeal process continued, a federal judge in New Orleans ruled that the Company had a right to the continued use of Love Field, as had been upheld eight times in other courts over the course of three highly-contested years.  This was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling and denied the application to hear the case.

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On January 25, 1979, Southwest started service to New Orleans, our first destination outside of Texas. This was made possible by the Airline Deregulation Act signed into law the previous year which permitted unrestricted entry into new passenger markets by domestic airlines.  The new law favored competition over government regulation as a way to determine where airlines could fly.  This did not sit well with the DFW Board and the cities of Dallas and Ft. Worth, who returned to the courts.  After their legal battles were once again unsuccessful, they decided to go the route of federal legislation.  Supporters of DFW sought the assistance of an old friend, U.S. House Majority Leader Jim Wright (who was also a resident of Ft. Worth).  On December 12of that year a joint congressional conference committee unanimously approved an amendment to the Air Transpiration Competition Act of 1979, which upheld Southwest’s legal right to operate from Love Field, but limited destinations to the states of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.  This provision became known as the Wright Amendment. wright3

The law mandated that only aircraft with 56 seats or fewer could operate to destinations beyond Texas’ perimeter states.  It also made it illegal to sell tickets via connecting service to any other airport. Over the years, several airlines made an effort to utilize smaller aircraft to offer service to airports outside these boundaries.  A notable attempt at this was Legend Airlines, who in 2000 opened their own terwright4minal at Love Field to offer nonstop service to Washington, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.  Continental, American, and Delta also attempted to add additional service from Love Field utilizing a sub-fleet of smaller regional aircraft.  The majority of these flights proved to be unprofitable and were discontinued shortly after their introduction.

The Wright Amendment remained mostly unchanged until 1997 when Congress passed the Shelby Amendment, introduced by Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama who was unhappy with high airfares in his state.  In addition to adding the Senator’s home state of Alabama to the destinations permissible from Love Field, Kansas and Mississippi were also added to the bill.  Tennessee later unsuccessfully attempted to be added using the same rationale.

After many years of remaining “passionately neutral” to the Wright Amendment, Gary Kelly announced to the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce on November 12, 2004 that Southwest would pursue an end to the law due to changes in the industry and our need to remain competitive in the modern airline industry.  This was the start to a multi-year effort to repeal the Wright Amendment.  DFW Airport responded angrily, pledging to fight any effort to the only law in the United States which provided such protections to any airport.  As one of the busiest and most successful airports anywhere, DFW did not require the same level of governmental securities as it did in the late ‘70s.  In January 2005, Southwest “respectfully declined” the incentive package offered by the DFW Board to move operations to their airport.  Later thwright6at year in May, the Right to Fly Act was introduced to Congress by U.S. House Representatives Jeb Hensarling and Sam Johnson of Texas to fully repeal the Wright Amendment.

Southwest launched the “Set Love Free” campaign to show our support for the bill. Company President Colleen Barrett rode a cherry picker to the top of our Headquarters building to reveal a massive “Wright is Wrong” banner, big enough to be seen from the runways of Love Field. Following a Dallas ad campaign about the anti-competitive nature of the Wright Amendment, featuring the song Release Me, a pep rally was held on October 19, 2005 where it was announced that more than 250,000 Texans had either signed a petition or written Congress in support of repeal.  Herb also testified before the U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation about the need for change several weeks later.

As the movement continued, Missouri became the ninth state beyond Texas that could be served from Love Field when Senator Samuel “Kit” Bond introduced a bill providing an exemption to the Wright Amendment.  President Bush signed the bill into law, which allowed for the start of nonstop service wright7to St. Louis and Kansas City from Love Field on December 13, 2005.

While Congress continued to debate the repeal, Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn advocated for a compromise between North Texas leaders and the airlines.  On June 15, 2006, a joint press conference including Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, DFW Airport, and the mayors of Dallas and Ft. Worth was held to announce the “Five-Party Agreement.”  This settlement outlined a full repeal of the Wright Amendment over the course of eight years.  It also allowed for immediate through-ticket sales, eliminating the need for Customers to buy two separate tickets and recheck their baggage if traveling beyond the destinations originally allotted for in the Wright Amendment.  Both the U.S. House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill on September 29, 2006 approving the compromise, and President Bush signed it into law on October 13.  FAA authority was granted three days later to Southwest, which enabled the Company to start selling one-stop or connecting service from Love Field to a total of 43 destinations.

Thanks to the efforts of thousands of Southwest Employees, Leadership, and the residents of North Texas, we are now less than one year away from “Nonstop Love.”  In early 2014 our first schedule will open allowing for nonstop service anywhere within the Southwest system starting October 13, 2014.  The countdown is on, and we will be taking the full year to celebrate. wright8

1 Comment

  1. Paragraph 2 twice uses “lead” instead of “led”.