Jim Wright, 83, guesses he wrote at least 100 amendments during his 34 years in Congress and is amazed that the only one he’s remembered for is the one that restricts long-haul flights from Dallas’ Love Field. The so-called Wright Amendment is the focus of an emotional argument that’s opened some ancient wounds and again pitted Fort Worth against Dallas, DFW against Love Field, and American Airlines against Southwest. We sat down over coffee in the TCU office of the former house speaker to discuss the amendment, fair play, and his loyalties to Fort Worth.
ROWLETT: Why does the Wright Amendment exist?
WRIGHT: Basically because Fort Worth and Dallas, in about 1970, reached a point of maturity and mutual respect. The two cities agreed to drop the pettiness that had existed between them and join together in seeking federal help in building a truly world-class airport to serve both cities. That was a happy day. And that’s why DFW is located precisely between the centers of the two downtowns.
WRIGHT PATH: “A deal, dammit, is a deal.”
WRIGHT: The federal government made it clear there would be no funds for construction unless those other airports were closed. Love, Meacham, and Greater Southwest Airport had to be closed to commercial passenger traffic. Both cities passed ordinances doing precisely that.
ROWLETT: So how did Southwest get the rights to fly from Love?
WRIGHT: Southwest’s founder, Herb Keliher, went to a state agency that was somewhat newly created and is no longer in existence, the Texas Aeronautical Commission. Southwest petitioned that agency to reopen Love for Southwest’s use, and the agency did so, much to the chagrin of the Dallas leadership, including the mayor, the council, and others. Of course, that state agency’s edict was applicable only in the state of Texas, so flights were restricted to Texas. Southwest aspired to serve three Texas cities: Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, and to fly people cheaply between those cities. And they did well. I don’t want to take anything away from Southwest. I think it’s a good airline that serves the public at a reasonable price.
ROWLETT: And you like Herb Keliher?
WRIGHT: I think Herb Keliher is one of the best guys I know. I enjoy his friendship. But you have to remember that DFW was built with taxpayer money and could have only been built through the good faith of the leadership and people of both Dallas and Fort Worth. For reasons of their own, the owners of Southwest decided they did not want to use DFW but wanted to fly out of Love Field.
ROWLETT: So then came the Wright Amendment to restrict those flights?
WRIGHT: In 1979, the federal airline deregulation package came to Congress. I was petitioned by the leaders of both Dallas and Fort Worth to make certain this deregulation did not adversely impact what both cities were doing with DFW in building a magnet of worldwide importance. So I wrote an amendment to a bill in the House simply stating that there would be no commercial flights with destinations outside the state of Texas from Love Field. Those out of state flights could not originate from airports within 15 miles of DFW. That was the Wright Amendment, not cherry picking places where they may or may not go.
ROWLETT: But Southwest can fly to adjoining states.
WRIGHT: The bill and the amendment went to a conference committee and lobbying efforts began on the part of other airlines and other cities, so we came to a point where a compromise was necessary. And the compromise was to allow any commercial passenger carrier flying out of Love Field to fly to destinations within the adjoining states. It passed and became the law of the land. But understand that I have no particular pride of authorship in the amendment just because it carries my name; that’s not why I still support it.
ROWLETT: So why do you still think the amendment should stand?
WRIGHT: I just think it makes good economic sense for both communities, Fort Worth and Dallas, to put what resources we have into making our mutual airport a first-class, world-class service that has connections with all of the world, rather than starting to build competitive locations just 12 miles apart, some say just eight miles apart now with the construction of new runways at DFW. And the reason the federal government was concerned about funding airports so close together in the first place was a safety consideration. We have seen the growth of bigger commercial airliners, and they require a longer range to maneuver for both landing and takeoff. We’ll have planes taking off and landing at both airports and their flight patterns overlap. I think it is very unwise to have more and bigger airplanes, flying further distances, from Love Field.
ROWLETT: You see it more as a tale of two cities, rather than two airlines, American versus Southwest?
WRIGHT: Oh, yes. We are not trying to stifle competition, but rather to build something together that is mutually beneficial. And, after all, doesn’t it make more sense to compete equally from DFW, where Southwest has been offered all the gates they could want, plus other incentives, to move there? That’s the way to compete, on a level playing field, with both observing the same rules.
ROWLETT: Was Southwest’s success a surprise?
WRIGHT: Not to me. It has a clear advantage by flying from Love. I don’t believe in monopoly for either company. I don’t believe American treats its passengers as well in markets where it has a monopoly as it does in markets where it competes. Wichita, Kansas, is one example. I believe in a level playing field so the temptation of abuse won’t exist.
ROWLETT: What about the possibility of a regional airport authority over both airports? Would that level the playing field?
WRIGHT: I haven’t thought about it. It might or it might not. You’ll still have safety concerns with the airports so close together.
ROWLETT: Other areas have two or more successful airports—New York City, Washington, D.C., and Houston come to mind—so why can’t Dallas/Fort Worth?
WRIGHT: None of those other places have airports as close to one another as eight miles. They’re much further apart, 25 or 30 miles apart, while these two airports are just too close together.
ROWLETT: Critics might argue that Jim Wright has always represented Fort Worth, and your continued support of the Wright Amendment reflects your continued support of Fort Worth. True?
WRIGHT: I used to live in Dallas. I finished high school in Dallas at Adamson. I love Dallas. But a deal, dammit, is a deal.
ROWLETT: So look into your often-accurate crystal ball: do you think the Wright Amendment will be repealed?
WRIGHT: Well, I’m not posing as a bookmaker. I don’t know what will happen, but I’ll abide by it whichever way it goes, of course. I’ve seen those billboards that say "Wright is Wrong." And I suppose there are some very conservative people who would say, "Wright is left." But I’d just say you can’t go wrong with Wright.
Regular D Magazine contributor Tracy Rowlett is a news anchor and managing editor at CBS Channel 11.