Despite a longstanding dispute over gate space at Love Field Airport in Dallas, Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines have found common ground: Neither carrier likes the April 30 resolution proposed by the City of Dallas.
The proposed terms would allow Atlanta-based Delta to continue operating five flights out of DAL for an additional three years. After that time period, the City of Dallas has the option of replacing Delta with another carrier. In response, a Delta spokesperson said that “Delta believes that the City’s proposed accommodation plan reduces, rather than promotes, competition at Love Field, and will respond to the City’s motion by the deadline later this month.” Southwest simply said that it was waiting until the end of the month to further review the proposal.
Even airlines without direct stake in the game are unhappy with the proposed arrangement. According to Dallas News, three other airlines have voiced dissent, including Alaska Airlines, the other tenant at Love Field, and United Airlines, which does not operate flights out of Love Field but filed an objection to the recent proposal. American Airlines, which is headquartered in neighboring Fort Worth and operates a hub out of Dallas Fort-Worth (DFW), complained that the suggested solution would illegally prevent it from operating out of Love Field in future.
Southwest has enjoyed a preferential relationship with Love Field since the early 1970s. For many years, Love Field was the main airport serving Dallas until the FAA decided that Love Field and Greater Southwest International Airport in Fort Worth could no longer handle additional traffic, and terminated federal funding for both airports. In response, Dallas Fort-Worth (DFW) opened in 1974. Both Dallas and Fort Worth had to agree to restrict their smaller airports, requiring all airlines operating out of Love Field or Greater Southwest to relocate to DFW in an agreement known as the Wright Amendment.
But Southwest Airlines, originally established as an intrastate carrier operating quick, no-frills trips between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, wasn’t founded until after the airlines had signed relocation agreements with Dallas and Fort Worth. Based on its later arrival on the scene, the carrier successfully sued to operate out of Love Field on the basis that there was no legal reason to close the airport for commercial service, and that Southwest wasn’t bound by the same agreements the other airlines had signed. A Federal District Court ruled in 1973 that, as long as Love Field remained open, the City of Dallas could not prevent Southwest from operating out of the airport.
Before DFW opened in 1974, Love Field was the eighth busiest airport in the US, with more than 70 gates and more than 6.5 million annual passengers. Once DFW opened, DAL shut down several of its concourses and drastically reduced its operations. Yet, Southwest flourished at Love Field and began expanding its empire from its new base of operations, first launching routes to additional cities in Texas in 1975 before entering neighboring states in 1978. Because of Southwest’s success, other carriers began to re-negotiate to use Love Field for short-haul routes. A Southwest co-founder launched a short-haul competitor called Muse Air, which shuttled passengers between Love Field and Houston on DC-9s and MD-80s. (The airline, later renamed TranStar, was acquired by Southwest in 1987.)
Continental Airlines (remember them?) spent many years battling the courts over interpretations of the Wright Amendment as the city of Fort Worth as well as the DFW airport fought to keep down expansion at Love Field. After 24 years of negotiations, Continental Express successfully became the second major airline to join Southwest at Love Field, cracking open the gate for American, Delta and Legend Air to soon follow suit. But the impact on the aviation industry following 9/11 led most airlines to pull out of operations at Love Field once again, although neither Southwest nor Continental Express were deterred. In fact, Southwest began actively lobbying to have the Wright Amendment fully repealed in 2004. The process of fully lifting the ban would take another 10 years to complete, but resulted in Love Field airlines having the right to fly into Missouri. In 2006, American Airlines and American Eagle began operating flights to Kansas City and St. Louis, as well as Austin and San Antonio, although the airlines subsequently changed up their routing a few times.
An amendment passed in 2006 restricted, amongst other stipulations, that Love Field’s maximum gate capacity would be reduced from 32 to 20 gates, and that the airport would only handle non-stop domestic flights. Out of those 20 gates, Southwest Airlines was allocated 16 gates, American two gates, and Continental Airlines two gates. The bill passed despite arguments from outsider airlines JetBlue and Northwest, who complained that the terms would effectively lock out any airlines that were not named in the compromise, since the 20-gate cap would not incentivize existing airlines to share with incoming competitors.
All told, airports, airlines and cities spent four full decades lobbying for fairer terms of operation at Love Field until the Wright Amendment was fully repealed on October 13, 2014. The day the repeal went into effect, Southwest promptly added routes from Dallas to Baltimore, Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando, Washington Reagan and Chicago, with Southwest Flight 1013’s Dallas to Denver route making the first non-Wright restricted flight. Several weeks later, Southwest added new routes to Atlanta, Nashville, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York-LaGuardia, Phoenix, San Diego, Orange County (California) and Tampa.
Today, that 20-gate restriction is still in effect at Love Field, which brings us to the dispute in question. There has been some rearrangement in gate allocation: American Airlines had to forfeit its two gates in order for the Department of Justice to approve the airline’s 2015 merger with US Airways — one of which was leased to Delta Airlines. Despite bids from both Delta and Southwest Airlines, American’s former gates were allocated to Virgin America the day the Wright Amendment was repealed. Now, after the Alaska Airlines and Virgin America merger, those gates are under Alaska Airlines management, and the carrier has retained use of those two gates for itself. Delta was forced to negotiate using one of the two original gates allocated to Continental Airlines, which, as of 2015, are now under United Airlines management. But since United doesn’t operate flights out of Love Field, Southwest began leasing those two gates from the airline in February 2015, effectively giving the carrier 18 total gates. Since Delta refused to let go of the gate it subleases from United, the airline has been locked in legal battles with Southwest since 2015 over Delta’s right to continue operating five flights a day. According to Southwest, Delta’s flights constitute trespassing and interference with Southwest’s operations. Delta claims that Southwest unfairly monopolizes the airport.
If Southwest and Delta cannot reach an amicable solution this year, the Atlanta-based carrier is prepared to take the dispute to the courts in February 2019. Looks like lawmakers will have to take their ideas back to the drawing board.
TPG has reached out to both airlines for comment.
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