Southwest Is Starting Service At 3 New Big United And American Hubs – But They Can’t Legally Go To DFW

After announcing plans to expand service to Miami, Southwest Airlines declared their intention to serve both Houston Intercontinental and Chicago O’Hare starting next year. These are highly non-traditional moves for the airline that’s historically focused more on lower cost airports in cities with multiple airports. However the Covid pandemic accelerates change, makes it possible to get gates as other airlines reduce service, and changes the competitive landscape. With these moves Southwest is directly going after American Airlines and United.

Southwest is already strong in South Florida (Fort Lauderdale), Houston (Hobby), and Chicago (Midway). They also have a huge customer base in Dallas (Love Field) where they were founded, and I wondered “could Dallas Fort Worth be on the horizon?” And the answer is no, not any time soon.

I had forgotten – but the Airlines Confidential podcast this week reminded – that Southwest Airlines is legally precluded from just flying out of Dallas Fort-Worth. To understand why requires going back four decades.

  • Southwest Airlines was founded at Dallas Love Field. Other airlines had agreed to move to DFW. They fought in court to keep Southwest from serving the closer-in airport. Southwest eventually won.

  • In response, Congress passed the Wright Amendment which limited what Southwest could do at Love Field. They were limited initially to flying within Texas and to contiguous states.

  • The list of states airlines could fly to from Love Field was expanded slightly, and the limitation didn’t apply to aircraft with 56 or fewer seats. Legend Airlines pulled seats out of planes to offer all premium cabin service from Love Field to business markets. They faced lawsuits over the plan, and American Airlines dumped capacity with their own premium cabin Fokker 100 service – putting Legend out of business.

    Ex-Legend Airlines DC-9 (Credit via Wikimedia Commons)

  • When the Wright Amendment was finally lifted, Southwest went from being the oppressed to being the oppressor. The deal required the destruction of gates leaving Southwest in control of 18 out of 20 gates at the airport at the time. No one could come in and really compete against Southwest, and Love Field service couldn’t grow to compete against American at DFW.

While the Wright Amendment’s restrictions on flying to specific states with aircraft that have more than 56 seats was lifted, I had forgotten that not all restrictions were eliminated. Southwest would have to give up some of its Love Field gate space if it wanted to serve DFW airport. That’s a restriction that remains in place until 2025.

It is effectively illegal for Southwest Airlines to come in and compete against American Airlines at DFW.

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, 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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  1. Totally inaccurate. Southwest CAN operate at DFW. But they would have to give up gates at DAL if they do so.. Per the agreement: If Southwest Airlines or its affiliate or code share partner (except for published/scheduled code share service from
    DFW Airport to Midway Airport as of June 14, 2006) chooses to
    operate passenger service from another airport within an 80-
    mile radius of Love Field in addition to its operations at Love
    Field, then for every such gate which Southwest Airlines, its
    affiliate or code share partner, operates or uses at another
    airport within this radius, Southwest Airlines will voluntarily
    relinquish control of an equivalent number of gates at Love
    Field, up to 8 gates and such gates shall be made available to
    other carriers. If other carriers are not interested in these
    gates, then they can be made available to Southwest Airlines
    for its use on a common use basis. This requirement to
    relinquish gates shall expire in 2025.

  2. Any thoughts on what routes from ORD they will run? As a northsider I will take a SW flight from MDW but not home. It’s closer to the loop after work on a Friday but is a disaster…especially with recent construction…getting back near Wrigley on a Sunday night.

  3. How many gates would they have to give up to serve DFW? Could they give up 5 gates at DAL and get as many as they want at DFW?

  4. @Ben- They would have to give up gates at DAL 1 for 1 in order to acquire gates at DFW, up to 10 gates. After that they would be free to acquire as many more gates at DFW as they can get their hands on. But they’re not about to give up gates at DAL that they would struggle to get back later, especially after fighting so hard for them and continuing litigation with Delta. On the contrary, they had to offload the DFW gate space they acquired from AirTran before consolidating operations onto a single certificate.

    @Gary- I’m not sure that I agree with your characterization of it being “effectively illegal” for Southwest to compete with American out of DFW. There are legal restrictions on service from DAL still (mainly the prohibition of international service), but there are no such restrictions at DFW, and the gate swap requirement for SWA to access DFW is not statutory. They would not be breaking any laws by picking up gates at DFW. Rather, this is a contractual obligation that arises from the Five Party Agreement. If SWA were to pick up gates at DFW without surrendering an equal number of gates (up to 10) at DAL, they would simply be in breach of contract. In theory those same five parties could consent to a change of terms before 2025, though I certainly wouldn’t expect them to do so.

  5. @Austin- I came down to the comments to say pretty much the same as you said. I disagree with Gary using the term “illegal” in this context.

  6. I always wanted to test the constitutionality of what congress pass especially now that Citizens United made corporations people. The blatant discrimination and anti competition cannot be legal. To create a law way for America Airlines to stop Southwest from flying international from Love Fields has no other reason to limit commerce has to be a state violation of the 9th Amendment of the constitution and the 14th.

    If any attorney wants to become famous let me know

  7. I wish DFW and Southwest could come up with a way to solve this where southwest could have gates at DFW be very outstanding

  8. News flash, they don’t want to go to DFW. Back when Delta pulled out of DFW as a hub they tried to entice Southwest to DFW by offering them all of terminal E. Southwest is best served where they started, DAL.

  9. I love that Southwest is at Love. It’s easier to get to and it is smaller. It is just so much more convenient then DFW.

  10. the eventual problem with Love field is that even with the remodel a few years ago the are effectively maxed out. they don’t have much space to grow at love field so I’m sure they are looking at how to grow in the coming years. DFW is and should be the fastest growing national big market for a while especially with the likes of Toyota, Charles Schwab, McKesson setting up shop there. and the stream of California’s and north easterners moving to Texas has only accelerated despite the pandemic.

  11. @trey – they ELIMINATED gates at Love Field. Then took the Legend terminal via eminent domain. it had over 50% more gates than it does today

  12. As a DFW based FA, there is no way that WN would ever get gates at DFW. AA holds a monopoly over the gates there which is why their biggest competitor NK at DFW can’t expand the way they want to.

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