Expiration of Wright Amendment means big airline changes for Southwest cities

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly gives the thumbs up sign after closing the cabin door for Flight 1013 to Denver, the first non-restricted flight out of Love Field, in Dallas on Oct. 13, 2014.
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly gives the thumbs up sign after closing the cabin door for Flight 1013 to Denver, the first non-restricted flight out of Love Field, in Dallas on Oct. 13, 2014. AP

The game has changed for Southwest Airlines and several major airports.

For the past 34 years, federal law limited flights between Dallas Love Field to only airports in Texas and a handful of states. Those flight restrictions, known as the Wright Amendment, officially ended on Monday.

When they did, Southwest and Dallas city officials rejoiced that their hometown airline could now fly to more major cities across the country. But aviation officials across the south-central United States – from Kansas City, Mo., to Albuquerque, N.M. – must now assess what a post-Wright future means for their passengers.

“Part of our role in the Southwest-specific network has changed,” said Justin Meyer, a deputy aviation director at Kansas City International Airport.

Signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, the Wright Amendment originally limited flights connecting to Dallas Love Field to airports in Texas and its four neighboring states: Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Kansas was added in 1997, along with Mississippi and Alabama. Missouri was added in 2005.

Since then, Kansas City International Airport has greatly benefited from air traffic out of Dallas Love Field.

“There was a pretty instantaneous spike in passenger volume” at the time, Meyer said. “That was our Wright Amendment heyday.”

Missouri’s largest airports – in Kansas City and St. Louis – have become the two most popular destinations outside of Texas for Dallas Love passengers, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Only Houston, San Antonio and Austin, Texas, have received more passengers from Love Field in recent years.

“Missouri and Kansas are great partners,” said Dan Landson, a Southwest spokesman.

Before Monday, Southwest planes flying from Love Field had to land at an airport in a Wright-sanctioned state before continuing on to larger cities, such as Los Angeles, Chicago or Washington.

In 2004, Southwest Airlines launched a campaign to fight the flight restrictions. After a 2006 compromise, the Wright Amendment was given an expiration date in 2014.

Beginning on Monday, Southwest offered non-stop flights out of Love Field to airports in Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

“We worked for 34 years with these restrictions,” Landson said. “To finally have us break through the wall and finally be able to connect the country with our home airport in Dallas Love Field – it could not have been more exciting.”

With the amendment’s end, the city of Dallas’ aviation director, Mark Duebner, said the uptick in passengers has already started and will only grow.

The city of Dallas projects that, by the end of 2016, the number of passengers going through the city-owned airport will jump around 50 percent from 2014 levels.

Kansas City International, meanwhile, will lose some connecting passengers, given that Dallas Love flights can now fly directly to cities such as Denver and Chicago.

“We will lose a couple of frequencies,” said Meyer, referring to the number of flights per day between Kansas City International and Dallas Love Field.

Other airports will lose connecting flights and passengers as well. The Albuquerque International Sunport will lose several daily flights starting in November, said Jeff Cruse, an operations manager at the airport.

Arkansas’ largest airport – Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport – will lose four Southwest flights a day starting next month, said Shane Carter, the airport’s director of public affairs and government relations.

Duebner, of Dallas Love Field, said Texas airports in Austin, El Paso and Houston could lose flights as well.

Landson said Southwest will still serve all its cities in the region, even with the reductions in flights connecting to Dallas Love Field.

“It’s always tough when it comes to reallocating aircraft,” Landson said.

Aviation officials in the region say the benefits of the amendment varied airport to airport.

While Kansas joined the Wright Amendment zone in 1997, the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport never really benefited from it, said Valerie Wise of the Wichita Airport Authority. Southwest only began service to Wichita last summer, she said.

“We waited a long time for Southwest,” said Wise, who is the authority’s air service and business development manager.

Even so, Wise said the end of the restrictions will help Wichita travelers reach more destinations through Love Field.

“We expect ridership to Dallas to increase on Southwest because they don’t have to make those extra stops prior to going to their destination,” she said.

Despite the negative impact of fewer connecting passengers from Dallas Love Field going through Kansas City, Meyer said he hopes local passengers in Kansas and Missouri will benefit.

“There’s going to be a lot more local seats that are freed up on those existing flights,” Meyer said.

Officials at airports in the former Wright Amendment states say it will take months to completely understand post-Wright patterns in air travel.

Meyer said he still remembers the increase in Dallas Love passengers to Kansas City nearly a decade ago. He said it is now other cities’ turn.