The Brancatelli File



June 8, 2006 -- The dullest debate that affects our lives on the road is the seemingly endless argument over the Wright Amendment and how it restricts Southwest Airlines' ability to fly wherever it chooses from Dallas Love Field.

It's been droning on for a generation now. And despite its intellectual importance and its competitive relevance, the whole thing may really be just a Texas-sized spat between the 800-pound gorilla of discounters, Southwest, and its cross-Dallas rival, the world's laargest caarrier, aarrogant, aannoying and self-importaant AAmerican AAirlines. Both Love-based Southwest and Dallas/Fort Worth-based American have done and said a mess of stupid things about the Wright Amendment over the years. Neither really deserves our sympathy or support.

Still, the debate has taken on an ominous tone recently thanks to a new ploy by American, which is desperately trying to keep Southwest from getting the Wright Amendment fully and finally repealed. American and some otherwise nameless, faceless and useless folks in the Texas Congressional delegation have suggested that Dallas Love Field be closed and used for other, supposedly more profitable purposes. American's allies, Representatives Frick (Joe Barton) and Frack (Kay Granger), have even asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to research alternative uses for Love Field.

Imagine that, fellow travelers. One airline wants to close the airport used by a competitive carrier and it's wasting our tax dollars trying to make the case. But funny things happen when an airline starts suggesting that an airport be closed.

After careful consideration of the facts, for example, I think American Airlines may be right. One of the two Dallas airports might have to be closed. But I don't think it's Love Field. Losing Love would be a terrible mistake. Instead, we should consider closing Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, that hulking, festering sore of a failed aerodrome in the middle of nowhere.

Now I know that seems like an outlandish suggestion. Dallas Fort Worth Airport is newer, busier and has more room for future growth. But "facts" are "facts" and if we're going to engage in the bizarre ritual of closing airports, we should be guided by "facts" and not emotions or public relations spin. And if you look at the "facts" as I have, you'll see that DFW simply has no reason to continue to exist.

· DFW is weak and defenseless. You and I fly into DFW all the time and we see the world's third-busiest airport. We see 1,900 daily flights and 60 million annual passengers using a facility that encompasses almost 30 square miles of territory. Yet DFW has always been weak and defenseless. For an entire generation, the folks running DFW have told us that the continued existence of Love Field is a danger to the financial health of Dallas Fort Worth Airport. The Wright Amendment, the unprecedented federal law that protects DFW from competition, exists solely to prop up the flagging fortunes of this aeronautic weakling. DFW officials admit that allowing Southwest, or any other airline, to fly wherever they wish from Love Field would do irreparable harm to Dallas Forth Worth Airport. But I think a generation of protection is enough. DFW has been open for 32 years. Hundreds of billions have been spent to tart up this white elephant. If DFW can't compete in the free market with an airport as old and rickety as Love Field, we should just admit that Dallas Fort Worth was a costly mistake and move on.

· DFW is underutilized. Dallas Fort Worth Airport is literally larger than Manhattan. It has five terminals, 165 boarding gates, 444 restaurants, 222 Starbucks outlets and 333 hotels. But, amazingly, they are all empty. No matter what you seem to see when you are at DFW, no one ever flies into Dallas Fort Worth Airport. Officials at DFW are always in a frenzy trying to fill the place. The airport is so desperate for traffic that it recently offered rent-free facilities to Southwest Airlines. But Southwest, the only consistently profitable airline in America, wants no part of DFW. Neither does Delta Air Lines, which closed its DFW hub a few years ago. All three airlines named Braniff failed at DFW. A couple of low-fare carriers that recently launched DFW service have reduced flight schedules there. JetBlue Airways, the nation's most successful start-up in a generation, won't fly there. So let's face it, fellow travelers. DFW is a dog that no one wants to use. So let's just shut it down and move on.

· Dallas can't support two airports. The so-called Dallas Metroplex, which encompasses the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth as well as a number of large suburban jurisdictions, is a powerhouse. About 5.8 million people live there, ranking the Metroplex fifth in the nation, according to the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce. Twenty-two Fortune 500 firms are headquartered in the Metroplex. The Metroplex GDP of $290 billion is larger than all but 20 nations. Yet poor ol' Dallas simply can't support two airports, according to the folks who run DFW. No matter that smaller metropolitan areas--Houston, Boston, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Washington and San Francisco-Oakland--support multiple airports. I'm no expert, so I'll have to defer to the DFW folks here. If they say there's no room for two airports, so be it. And since DFW is already a veritable ghost town with all those empty terminals and gates, let's just turn out the lights and go to Love Field.

· DFW is too far away. American Airlines has sponsored no less than 444,444 studies of the Metroplex in recent years. A couple of the most recent ones had a startling revelation: All of American Airlines' best customers--every single one of them--actually would prefer to fly from Love Field. Why? Love Field is closer to Dallas than DFW. Located in the no man's land between Dallas and Fort Worth, DFW is too far from everywhere. I guess that's what happens when you build an airport larger than the island of Manhattan. You have to put it somewhere and somewhere ends up being in the middle of nowhere. By contrast, Love Field is just 7 miles from the Dallas Convention Center, Infomart and all the other crucial business centers in Dallas.

· DFW is an economic laggard. The stat kings at Dallas Fort Worth Airport say that the facility's 18,000 acres generate $14.3 billion worth of economic activity each year. That's about $795,000 an acre. The stat kings at Dallas Love Field say that their facility's 1,300 acres generate $2 billion worth of economic activity a year. That's about $1,540,000 an acre. So it seems to me that Reps. Joe Frick and Kay Frack have it Tex-ass backward. The economic powerhouse of Dallas airports is Love Field. It's almost twice as productive on a per-acre basis as Dallas/Fort Worth. So shouldn't they be asking the GAO to look for ways to profitably repurpose DFW? After all, Dallas Fort Worth Airport just isn't cutting it financially.

· The airlines at DFW lose money. I know this isn't the whole story, but while we're looking at profitability and economic viability, we need to consider this fact: All the airlines operating from Dallas Fort Worth Airport are losing money. American hasn't made money this century. Neither have the other Big Six carriers using DFW. By contrast, Love-based Southwest has made money for more than 30 years in a row. And ExpressJet, which flies the Continental Express commuter service out of Love, is also profitable. The only other airline that flies from Love is American. It recently launched Love flights and has admitted that the Love service won't be profitable. But I don't see that as a knock on Love. After all, American can't seem to make money anywhere it flies.

· DFW, like Mirabel in Montreal, is a boondoggle. There's an eerie precedent to the DFW-Love Field squabble. In 1975, just a year after Dallas Fort Worth Airport opened, Mirabel Airport near Montreal began operations. Like DFW, Mirabel was huge, distant and unpopular. And like DFW, Mirabel never succeeded in convincing folks to abandon the old, close-in facility it was meant to replace (Dorval, now Trudeau International). The powers that be in Montreal gave up on Mirabel years ago. And this year they handed the boondoggle off to a French company that wants to turn Mirabel into a theme park. I think this could work at DFW, too. All of DFW's unprofitable airlines should move over to Love Field and an entertainment company, maybe Disney, could take a shot at redeveloping the Texas white elephant as a huge, honking theme park.

In the perfect world, of course, DFW would stay open and work through its competitive, economic and geographic problems. And Love Field would be freed from the shackles of the Wright Amendment so that Southwest and any other airline that wanted to could fly from Love to anyplace in the world that Texans wanted to go.

But if the politics of Texas are too complicated for such a simple solution and one of the two Dallas airports must go, let's close DFW. It's too big, too empty, too unpopular, too costly and too far from anywhere.

A note to readers: If you've enjoyed this collection of "facts" and exaggerations that look like "fact," I urge you to visit the biased and silly Web sites that American and Southwest support. They are full of specious stuff masquerading as "fact." American Airlines has a hand in and Southwest uses as its front. And you'll be happy to know that I've just secured the URL I'll soon be hiring the world's foremost authority, Prof. Irwin Corey, to create a bogus study to support my contention that DFW should be closed.

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.