Dallas Love Field has 20 gates. They are legally forbidden to build more.
When Dallas Fort-Worth Airport was constructed, the existing tenants agreed to move there and abandon commercial service from Love Field. But Southwest Airlines wasn’t an existing Love Field tenant and made no such agreement to abandon the close-in airport more convenient to downtown Dallas.
Southwest’s business model was intra-Texas flying, and dependent on making flying more efficient than driving. So a close-in airport was needed. And they weren’t subject to Civil Aeronautics Board regulation since they only flew intra-state.
Incumbent airlines sued to stop Southwest from taking off. Eventually Southwest prevailed, but was cordoned off by House Speaker Jim Wright (D-American Airlines) and the Wright Amendment which limited flying from that airport using aircraft with more than 56 seats to Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
After Southwest expanded beyond Texas (post-deregulation), passengers could book a ticket from Love Field to one of these four other states and from there — on a separate ticket and without through-checking of baggage — to wherever they wished. But Southwest couldn’t sell tickets beyond the four states.
In 1997 the list of allowable states was extended to Alabama, Kansas, and Mississippi. In 2005 Missouri was added.
Current Airbus North America chairman and former FAA Administrator T. Allen McArtor founded Legend Airlines in 2000 which bypassed the Wright Amendment by offering all business class service on 56-seat DC9s to Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, and DC. They were out of business by 2001, in part collapsing under mounting legal fees.
In 2006 legislation was passed to eliminate restrictions on where an airline could fly from the airport starting in late 2014. However, the law limited the number of gates the airport could have, reducing the maximum from 32 to 20.
Until recently Southwest controlled 16 of 20 gates. United controlled 2 and American 2. American leased its gates to Delta.
As part of the concessions for American’s merger with US Airways, the federal government required American to give up its Love Field gates. That would supposedly increase competition at Love Field, even though American didn’t fly from there. This set off a chain reaction that has left the airport in chaos and threatens to reduce competition there.
American’s gates were ordered to Virgin America. Delta, now in need of gates, leased United’s. But United offloaded their gates to Southwest, which wants to use the gates themselves. And that leaves Delta without a place to park planes when the music stops on their existing United lease on July 6.
Delta continues to sell seats past July 6, even though they have no lease for gates at the airport.
Southwest’s schedule utilizes the gates they’ve obtained, and grows the number of flights at the airport.
There are more flights scheduled at the airport than its gates can handle (unless Southwest has a way to utilize its gates more efficiently, although they’re already pretty maxed out).
The FAA has declared that all existing airlines have to be accommodated at the airport, even though additional gates are illegal.
So the city of Dallas is asking a federal court what to do.
“Mandates from two federal agencies under color of federal law and conflicting legal claims and litigation threats by several airlines under federal law have put the City in an impossible situation that only this Court can resolve,” the city said. “An impending July 6, 2015, deadline that may cause chaos at Love Field requires the City to file this action now,” the suit stated.
It named Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines Co., Virgin America, American Airlines, United Airlines, Seaport Airlines, DOT and FAA as defendants.
The city’s dilemma: “The Federal Agencies insist on an accommodation decision according to their view of the law or the City risks enforcement actions for failing to comply with the required assurances and competition plan. But no matter what the decision, the City will be sued by one or more of the Airlines and perhaps even by the Federal Agencies and/or DOJ.”
Southwest has also sued over the federal government’s directive that Delta keep using gates that Southwest now controls.
And just for kicks, in a kind of awesome bit of trolling, “On or about April 9, 2015, American made a request to the City that up to 4 daily flights be accommodated at Love Field” (emphasis mine).
Oh and Virgin America supports Southwest in this because less competition.
What in the world will happen at Dallas Love Field? If I had to guess I’d imagine that Delta may be able to continue to use its gates for an extra month — Southwest’s new increased schedules doesn’t begin until August 9. At least that buys some more time.
Ultimately, it’s a mess. And it calls into question the original order that American divest gates at Love Field in the first place. Clearly, the government’s Wright Amendment restrictions on the airport made no sense, and were lifted. But the government’s restrictions on the number of gates at the airport makes no sense, and should be lifted.
New gates won’t happen right away. The federal government’s order that Delta be permitted to use Southwest’s gates at the airport seems suspect absent a government lawsuit against the transfer of those gates from United to Southwest, but many readers will have far greater familiarity with this area of law than I do.
In the meantime there’s a no-win situation for the airport and the city. And, it seems, for American Airlines which is now locked in a downward pricing spiral due to increased service at Love Field.