MIAMI — Just when we thought that things were finally starting to settle down at Dallas Love Field, it looks like we were wrong yet again. Somehow it is possible for there to be even more arguing back and forth between Southwest, Delta, the City of Dallas, and the DOT. This time Southwest is not just arguing that Delta should leave, but now it’s escalated to the point of suggesting that Delta shouldn’t even have the legal standing to ask to stay.
All of this centers around a letter sent by the DOT to the City of Dallas in December, which stated that the carriers already serving Love Field must be permitted to continue to do so as long as they maintain a similar pattern of service. Delta has been offering its five daily non-stops to Atlanta since 2012, prior to which it offered the same number of flights to Memphis, switching hubs in advance of the Memphis hub’s demise. They were able to skirt the Wright Amendment’s destination limits by using a CRJ-200, which did not have the minimum number of seats for the rules to be applicable.
Southwest recently filed with the DOT to ensure that Delta’s service can be ended once their new services begin in July. Now that Delta has been threatened with eviction yet again, they have filed with the DOT for protection of their existing services, citing the aforementioned letter, and stating that it “has a direct and substantial interest in the outcome of this proceeding that is sufficient to warrant intervention.” Southwest, however, is not having it, and they have been throwing a proverbial tantrum ever since, calling the DOT letter “arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and otherwise not in accordance with law, in excess of statutory authority, and without observance of procedure by law.” Now Southwest has gone even further, asserting that the December letter wasn’t even relevant to Delta! I’m not sure who else it would be relevant to since no one else is at risk of losing the right to serve the airport.
At the moment, Delta operates five daily round trips between Love Field and Atlanta every day except Saturday, which has only two. All of these flights are currently operated by former AirTran (via Southwest, ironically) Boeing 717-200s, except for one of the two Saturday flights, which opts for a CRJ-900 instead. Virtually all of these flights depart full, often with oversales by several seats, so it’s safe to say that they have been well received. I have flown the route myself on multiple occasions. Since the old Terminal 1 was closed on October 13, 2014, Delta has moved its flights to the new consolidated terminal, where it has used two different gates at different points—the first belonging to Southwest and the second to United. Now that United has subleased its two gates to Southwest, and Southwest has loaded a 180-departure schedule for its 18 gates beginning on July 6, Delta appears to have no choice but to vacate the airport in favor of consolidated operations at DFW, where Delta currently offers 46 daily nonstop flights to their various hubs.
Engineering an Amicable Solution
Perhaps it has escaped Southwest management’s notice, but Love Field will now officially reach capacity as of July 6, and there is no prospect for expansion. Every single gate will be used to operate ten daily departures—180 total departures for Southwest and 20 for Virgin America. And according to what remains of the Wright Amendment, that’s the end of the line. No more gates may be built, the use of remote stands for regularly scheduled services is prohibited, and there will truly be no room in the inn for Delta, nevermind room for Southwest and Virgin to expand further, though it seems unlikely that Virgin will be expanding again soon since they are already having difficulty filling their aircraft.
So what of the future? Well if Southwest is successful in pushing Delta out, then it will look a lot like the present in perpetuity. This is still a substantial improvement for both Southwest and Virgin America over their respective positions just six months ago. But one thing is certain—unlike in 2004-2006 when Southwest launched a major campaign to repeal the Wright Amendment, no such campaign will be coming from Southwest again. Why, you might ask? Because Southwest used their one shot in 2006 with the Wright Amendment Reform Act. Before it was passed, Southwest was forced to enter into an agreement, along with the Cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, DFW Airport, and American Airlines, that prohibited any of the signatories from further appealing for change to federal Love Field restrictions.
But notice who didn’t sign that questionable agreement. You guessed it—Delta! The same can be said for Virgin America, but in my interview with CEO David Cush, I specifically asked if Virgin would be interested in bringing such a challenge to the new Wright Amendment, to which he emphatically said no. Perhaps it’s a little ironic, but Delta is the only entity which currently has legal standing to challenge the Wright Amendment. What’s more, Southwest pushing them out provides an even more compelling argument for reconsidering the restrictions. If Southwest is successful, then they will have succeeded in killing their only chance at properly freeing their home airport.
I suppose it’s possible that Southwest already knows all of this. But if so, then perhaps they should focus more on the threat to push Delta out of Love Field than on Delta’s lack of standing to contest it. After all, if Delta does bring a successful challenge to the Wright Amendment (and I think the case would be very strong, since placing a capacity restriction on a city-owned airport is quite a stretch of federal authority), it is Southwest who will benefit most substantially. It may not be the most obvious of relationships, but just this once, Southwest should really consider staying in Delta’s good graces.
Planning for the Future
With all of that said, there remains one significant issue. Southwest is already selling seats on 180 flights starting July 6, and all of those flights will need gate space at which to park. No one is contesting their right to use every one of those slots. If Delta wishes to continue service to the airport, then they will have to relocate yet again. But there isn’t an obvious option anymore since all of the gates in the terminal will be fully utilized, as defined by the lease agreements between the airlines and the city. If the Wright Amendment were to be repealed in total, then hard stands would be an option, though the new terminal’s design would make that very difficult. The other option would be to resurrect what remains of Terminal 1, the landside portion of which was demolished. The airside portion of the terminal is intact and still equipped with three operable boarding bridges, but it is not connected to the new terminal. A temporary ground-level tunnel just beyond the consolidated security checkpoint could fix this, as could a circulating bus service. In any case, the best option would seem to be for Delta to claim those three wide open gates in the event that it is deemed legal. It may not be pretty, but it would provide gate space until a new second terminal or extension of the existing terminal could be completed—a process which could take years of planning and construction.
At the end of the day, I love Love Field, and so does anyone who has been to DFW lately (with the possible exception of the lovely Terminal D); Delta’s satellite in Terminal E could compete with LaGuardia for third-world status. I would love to see Love Field continue to grow and expand. And lest I sound too cranky, I also love flying with Southwest! Delta will never offer anywhere near the volume of nonstop destinations from Love Field that Southwest does. But I’ve also flown to Europe departing from Love Field on Delta, and that’s something that Southwest simply cannot offer, and neither can Virgin America. The airport needs at least one full-service international carrier in order to adequately serve Dallas residents and compete with American, and with United obviously not interested, that only leaves Delta. And other carriers that have expressed interest in serving Love Field, including JetBlue, would be able to benefit as well. The more options there are in competition with American, the stronger Southwest’s position in the market will be. An open Love Field benefits everyone.
And what might just sweeten the deal is that the repeal of the Wright Amendment would also allow passenger service to Fort Worth’s Meacham International Airport (and several other airports in the DFW metroplex in the future). There’s no reason that Dallas residents should be the only beneficiaries. DFW is frankly inconvenient for both cities, and low-cost carriers like Southwest, Spirit, and especially Allegiant would stand to benefit from an available airport in Fort Worth. All of this adds up to more fare (and fair) competition for one of the most expensive metro areas in the country for air travel.
Southwest management: If you don’t mind indulging me momentarily, there are many destinations in the system that would benefit from nonstop Love Field service, but which are not critical enough to justify using the very limited number of available slots. One day very soon you could easily occupy the entire current terminal by yourself, with the remaining carriers in an extension or satellite. For that matter, you could have 25 gates or more (Love Field had more than 50 at one point). But if you take rash action now and attempt to take the airport for yourself before the restrictions are challenged, then you will likely have to live with them indefinitely. I beg of you, as a long-time customer and a resident of Dallas, please do not make the colossal mistake of destroying your only chance to properly open the Love Field market and expand the station to reach its potential.