Dallas Finds Itself Between Scylla and Charybdis: No Matter What Happens With Love Field Gates They’ll Be Sued

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Hey Gary! Just a quick FYI…if you’re gonna go all scholastic on us, and reference Ancient Greek Mythological creatures – well, best to spell CaryBdis correctly. :p

  2. Of course in my zeal to seem academically superior, I misspelled it myself lol. ChaRybdis 🙂

  3. It’s pretty clear to me that Delta needs to pack up and leave. I don’t see how they have any legal claims.

  4. Adding gates and generally allowing more (ie. low cost) airlines to fly to wherever they want is one way the government could help reduce the pain they have inflicted on the flying public by allowing the major airlines to merge. A very tiny percentage of the fees we pay should easily fund the necessary expansion.

  5. Southwest continues to act as the underdog and customer savior. The warrior spirit media plays well in Dallas and Southwest has spent big money on their Love field service announcements. They also get a more viable hub with fewer/weaker competitors and more flights (with fewer restrictions) which leads to long term yield advantage.

    I’m not actually sure Delta really cares about Love more than the results of this fight. Delta is happy to let Southwest and AA’s sit in court figuring this stuff out while having a price war to convince everyone their plan is better for consumers. Meanwhile, Delta gets to try to fight to open up Love Field past 20 gates (though they haven’t said it explicitly, it is a logical conclusion) which would further enflame the AA-Southwest fight and hurt both carrier’s hub pricing. All while under guise of “consumer positive, end government regulation” mantras that DL loves.

    AA got Virgin America to move to DAL from DFW which eliminates direct competition and constrains their ability to grow in Dallas.

    United’s actually did something competitively smart for them (amazing!) since they got money, screwed Delta, and enflamed WN-AA fighting (which may soften fights in San Fran, Denver, Houston, DC).

  6. Ah, Mark, you’re back on your game! A couple of your prior posts had had me worried for a moment that you’d lost the knack for snappy snark.

    As for the merits here, well, that’s why God — or at least Title 28 of the United States Code — created the declaratory judgment action. It will be really interesting to see how this all turns out.

  7. It really does feel to me like delta doesn’t really care about the flights and is just trying to piss everybody off. Looks like it’s working. I don’t understand why some people are mad about southwest having 18 gates when it seems like they came by them legally. I think my favorite part of this was: “House Speaker Jim Wright (D-American Airlines)”.

  8. Does the law allow bus gates? Just curious, though I can’t believe I’m finding myself backhandedly suggesting such a horrible thing.

  9. No, bus gates or hard stands are expressly prohibited under the Wright Amendment Reform Act. There are 20 contact gates and that’s it. But that law is no less illegal than the original Wright Amendment because the federal government has no business limiting the size of a city-owned airport facility. There are now so many lawsuits out there that one can only hope they will bring a challenge to the statute itself. An injunction could allow for the temporary use of bus gates in the interim since it takes time to build additional terminal space, but there is certainly room for more gates on the airfield. Heck, it’s going to take years just to build the new parking garage. But Love used to have more than 50 gates, several of which were 747-capable, so space is not an issue.

  10. Southwest is just being plan greedy by using 18 gates at Love Field.

    I have flown for SWA for over 20 years on all of their different model airplanes. From my experience, SWA can change a plane at a gate within 60 minutes, and many times even faster. If this is a case and SWA operated each gate from 6 AM until midnight, this was allow for 288 flights per day out of the 16 gates they have now.

    From what I have read, SWA will be operating about 200 flights per day under their current expansion plans. With the possibility of 288 flights per day, SWA could grow their capacity by almost 45%.

    So if SWA could grow their capacity by45% over what they have planned, occupying two more gates should be viewed as a monopolist practice.

    I have not seen many airline monopoly lawsuits in last few years. Maybe it time to start viewing SWA as a monopolist airline.

    Southwest should not be allowed to expand past the current 16 gates they currently have a Love Field.

  11. @Rolfe, most airline planners will tell you that you shouldn’t try to do more than 12 flights per day per gate. Any more and any IROP or MX starts to really kill you. Think about it, one flight is 15 mins late, then every flight at that gate gets screwed the rest of the day, and quickly propogates through the system. Southwest really is maxing out their gates with that schedule. Whether they should be able to force out Delta is another matter…

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