MIAMI — It is rare for an airport with fewer than 200 daily departures to gain the level of attention to which Dallas Love Field has become accustomed over the last year.  On June 17, the home base of Southwest Airlines became the impetus for yet another lawsuit over gate allocation—this time filed by the City of Dallas.

This is far from the first lawsuit seeking to address the issue, as both Southwest and Delta have already weighed in on their differing opinions on the matter in several courts of law.  What is remarkable, however, is that the city now feels the need to seek legal clarification for itself with only a couple of weeks left before the impending showdown.

A Delta 717 pushes back from Dallas Love Field Gate 9. (Credits: Austin Speaker)
A Delta 717 pushes back from Dallas Love Field Gate 9. (Credits: Austin Speaker)

For those who may still need a bit of background, you’ll find links to relevant readings from the last few months below.  But in the wake of the Wright Amendment Reform Act taking effect on Oct. 13, 2014, the leasing rights of the Love Field’s 20 gates were redistributed, leaving 16 to Southwest and two each for United Airlines and Virgin America.

Delta, which has been serving the airport since 2008, was permitted to use a Southwest gate because there were free slots for the city to assign.  Eventually, Delta reached a sublease agreement for one of United’s gates, but that carrier elected to withdraw from the airport completely in March and turned over its gates to Southwest.  Southwest agreed to honor Delta’s existing sublease, which runs through July 6, but refused to renew it, citing an increase in their own schedule to 180 departures—the alleged limit on operations.

But here is the interesting part: a letter from the U.S. Department of Transportation makes it very clear that the city is obligated to allow existing carriers to continue existing service patterns in spite of the capacity restrictions at Love Field, and Delta is (for obvious reasons) holding fast to this letter and insisting that Southwest be forced to find space.  For those who have been at Love Field during peak hours, where Southwest presently has 166 daily departures, it is difficult to imagine that more than 180 would be somehow impossible.

Some very simple math would suggest that Southwest’s gates alone could accommodate around 300, with room to spare.  However, under the terms of the gate lease agreement, the city cannot compel Southwest to allow another carrier to use gates that are deemed to be “fully utilized”—i.e., handling 10 daily departures.  And this is where the conflict becomes such a challenge.  The DOT says that the city must find space for Delta, while the lease contract says that the city has no authority to do so once Southwest reaches 180 daily departures, which it is on track to do on August 9.

Returning to the new lawsuit in particular, the city appears to be going for broke in its frenzy to find a solution.  Thus far the city has taken a back seat, but it appears that someone has now consulted a calendar and is aware of the impending deadline for Delta’s theoretical withdraw and decided that the issue was worth resolving before a Delta 717 arrived and found a Southwest 737 parked in its customary spot.

The mezzanine above the Great Hall at Dallas Love Field Airport.
The mezzanine above the Great Hall at Dallas Love Field Airport.

Proof of the city’s frenzy lies in the sheer breadth of the parties named in the suit.  That the city would name Southwest, Delta, and the DOT is to be entirely expected.  That they would name the FAA and Virgin America is also not terribly surprising.  But that they would even throw in American Airlines, United Airlines and Seaport Airlines is beyond belief.  American and United have withdrawn from the airport, the former having done so a number of years ago, and Seaport operates a mere two daily flights using a Cessna that Virgin has been more than happy to accommodate.

And as if that were not enough, Virgin America CEO David Cush has come down in support of Southwest.  At a meeting of the Dallas Regional Chamber, Cush stated “My view of this is pretty clear: Southwest owns those gates.  They should be able to do whatever they want to with them without having Delta enlisting the government to do their bidding.”  Southwest has certainly taken the same stance.

CEO Gary Kelly has become even more flippant than usual lately about the upcoming deadline. At the company’s  annual shareholder meeting last month (ironically held outside Dallas for the first time in the company’s history), he made it very clear that Southwest would be at full capacity after August 9, and therefore would be unable and unwilling to accommodate Delta. He passed the buck to the city, and it appears the city has finally listened and sought clarification.

But with a court date months away, this lawsuit may have come too late to provide the clarification it is seeking prior to July 6.  At this point, the Delta lawsuit is much closer to being resolved, but even it will not provide clear answers in the near term, leaving only the hope of an injunction to either force Delta out or to force Southwest to keep allowing them to use a gate.

The prospects at this point are not pretty, which is why I will certainly be paying Love Field a visit on the big day to see what happens.  I can only hope that it doesn’t come down to a duel between Delta CEO Richard Anderson and Gary Kelly in front of the Texas Rangers statue in the lobby—the TSA and airport police would likely raise objections to that.

But tempers are flaring, and the airport’s tight federal restrictions will very soon come into direct conflict with federal mandates, raising the question once again of the legality of the Wright Amendment Reform Act’s restrictions in the first place.  The ideal outcome here would be a proper judicial review of the act itself, which would likely lead to the end of the gate capacity restriction, but that would be several months or even years away.