End of Dallas airport restrictions sure to boost Southwest’s routing

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated one of Southwest's service stops.Southwest Airlines passengers in Wichita will likely get a boost when the last of the Wright Amendment restrictions end in 2014.

The federal law puts limits on nonstop flights from Love Field in Dallas, but those limits are set to expire Oct. 16, 2014.

“We obviously know it’s coming, and we are very excited about it,” said Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz. “It is big news for Southwest Airlines.”

The end of the limitations will allow Southwest and other carriers flying from Dallas Love Field to fly nonstop anywhere in the continental United States. That will open up more nonstop destinations from Dallas, Mainz said.

And it should provide Wichita travelers who fly to Dallas more options for connecting service, he said. Southwest began service from Wichita to Las Vegas, Chicago and Dallas in June.

“We don’t have a plan set in place today, but it’s safe to say we are planning, and we are gearing up for it,” he said. “We’ll add cities from Dallas. That’s a certainty. We haven’t said what cities or what our flight schedule will look like.”

The Wright Amendment was sponsored by former Fort Worth Rep. Jim Wright in 1979. It was passed to protect the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport from losing business after Southwest declined to relocate from Love Field to the newer airport. The amendment allowed only flights from Love Field to locations within Texas and four contiguous states – Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

In 1997, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, sponsored legislation, called the Shelby Amendment, that added Kansas, Alabama and Mississippi to the zone. (Missouri was added in 2005.)

In 2004, Southwest rebelled against the restrictions and launched a massive campaign – called Set Love Free – to repeal the Wright Amendment. In 2005, it threatened to leave Dallas unless the amendment was repealed.

In 2006, President George W. Bush signed a bill to repeal the amendment. Southwest, American Airlines, the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, and the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth agreed to the repeal with the following conditions:

• that the zone restrictions stay in place until 2014,

• that Love Field’s total gate capacity be lowered from 32 to 20 gates,

• that the airport be restricted to domestic flights.

That year, Southwest announced indirect connecting service between Love Field and destinations outside the “Wright zone.” While Southwest can sell tickets to destinations anywhere within the U.S., flights have to make at least one stop inside the Wright amendment area until the repeal takes effect.

For example, Dallas flights to Las Vegas stop in Wichita to pick up passengers before flying to the western city. Currently, Southwest can’t fly direct to Las Vegas from Dallas.

The changes mean that Southwest will rethink its entire system, said Dean Headley, Wichita State University associate professor of marketing and co-author of the annual Airline Quality Ratings, which ranks the nation’s major airlines.

“Where that takes them, we don’t know,” he said, but Southwest is creative.

“They are always ready to be more efficient,” Headley said. For Wichita passengers, “it might open things up once you get to Dallas.”

Valerie Wise, Wichita Airport Authority air service and business development manager, agreed that the change will be good for Wichita passengers.

“They’ll be able to serve so many more cities nonstop (from Dallas),” Wise said.

Southwest bought AirTran Airways in 2011. When it began its service in early June from Wichita, Southwest halted AirTran’s three daily flights from Wichita to Atlanta.

Southwest passengers to Dallas should benefit not only from added flexibility with the end of Wright Amendment restrictions, Mainz said, but also a newly renovated Love Field airport.

“It’s a big deal here in Dallas,” he said. “The difference will be a brand new, state-of-the-art, modernized airport.”

Southwest will operate from 16 of what will eventually be a 20-gate concourse there.

Completion of the renovation is aligning nicely with the repeal of the Wright Amendment, Mainz said.

“When we come out in October of next year, we’re going to have a brand new, 20-gate concourse right there in our backyard and the ability to serve nonstop flights anywhere in the continental United States,” Mainz said. “That’s something we have never been able to do. It will be an exciting day to see that actually happen.”

Southwest is also preparing for international service, which it acquired with its purchase of AirTran.

To that end, Southwest is building a reservation system to handle international traffic, Mainz said. And a five-gate expansion at Houston’s Hobby Airport will allow Southwest to connect to Mexico or the Caribbean.