On May 6, 2015, former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright died at the age of 92. To those who remember Jim Wright it may be because he was the first House speaker in history to be driven from office. After 34 years in Congress, he resigned on April 30, 1989, in the middle of his term, over ethics violations. But for those in the transportation industry, particularly air transportation, Jim Wright’s power and influence reached far beyond his term in office; indeed almost to his death.
Turn the clock back to February 3, 2014 when Southwest Airlines announced that starting in the fall of 2014, it would offer nonstop service between Dallas’ Love Field and 15 cities, including Chicago, Atlanta, and San Diego. This was a front page story in many newspapers in the South and West, but why? Airlines add and eliminate flights all the time to a lot less fanfare. As it turned out, this was a special case, and it was no coincidence that the launch of the new service coincided with the expiration of the 34 year old “Wright Amendment” to the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. To understand the significance of the timing, you need to know a little about the Wright Amendment and the circumstances that led to its enactment in 1980. Back in the 1960’s, concerns about the ability of local airports in Dallas and Fort Worth to handle a growing volume of traffic led the Civil Aeronautics Board to order the construction of a new regional airport. In December, 1968, the local governments broke ground on the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), which opened in 1974. The plan was to eliminate the existing Dallas and Fort Worth airports, and all airlines serving the area agreed to move their operations to DFW.
In the meantime, a newly formed entity, Southwest Airlines, had begun intrastate operations from Love Field and had no desire to move. Since it didn’t exist when the other airlines agreed to relocate to DFW (Southwest was launched in 1971), it was not a party to the agreement and ultimately filed suit to continue operations at Love Field. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its favor.
After the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, Southwest announced plans to offer interstate service from Love Field. To say that made DFW and the other airlines very unhappy would be an understatement. Love Field is only minutes from downtown Dallas, and since only Southwest would be operating there, it would enjoy such advantages as less congestion, more convenient parking, and other carrier and traveler conveniences. DFW and the airline interests took their complaint to Jim Wright, representative from the 12th congressional district (which includes Fort Worth) and arguably one of the most powerful congressmen at that time. Wright sponsored an amendment that prohibited Love Field-based airlines with large or mid-sized planes (those with more than 56 seats) from serving destinations outside Texas or the contiguous states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In other words, a passenger flying from say, Dallas to Phoenix would have to change planes in one of the contiguous states, actually buying two tickets and claiming and rechecking baggage at the intermediate city. Obviously, this was not a very attractive alternative to flying out of DFW.
Despite these restrictions, Southwest continued to grow and became a very viable and popular airline. DFW by then, had become congested, and in 1997, the law was amended to allow Southwest to serve additional states – Alabama, Kansas, and Mississippi – from Love Field. Flights to Missouri were added the next year. Still DFW opposed any further erosion of the Wright Amendment. Finally in 2004, Southwest began a full court press to have the amendment repealed. In 2006, an agreement was reached among all parties that would lift the restrictions in eight years’ time – on October 13, 2014.Through ticketing was allowed immediately, but passengers still were forced to change planes until the provision expired.
Thus, the simple announcement of new flights brought to an end what many consider to be one of the more onerous constraints to free competition in the airline industry, with most of the responsibility falling on the shoulders of influential lobbying interests and one powerful Congressman – Jim Wright.
So, as the legendary Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story……………………”