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OPINION: That Long Drive Out to the Airport

Our guest editorial writer, the economics columnist for the New York Times, explains why the Wright Amendment is bad for Dallas.
By Virginia Postrel |

The Wright Amendment, whose existence rarely fails to shock out-of-towners, highlights the least attractive aspect of Dallas-area politics and economics: the prevalence of crony capitalism.

Local leaders may profess their devotion to markets and entrepreneurship. But when they make public policy, they tend to treat business as an in-group game of subsidies and protectionism. Real market competition, where winners aren’t determined in advance and the pressure to improve service and cut costs never lets up, may be fine for restaurants and distribution centers. But all too often, competition is not the Dallas way for flagship companies or government services. The well-connected count. The general public, including businesses without effective lobbies, doesn’t.

It’s not surprising, then, that the public debate over the Wright Amendment has been conducted as though two big airlines and a big airport are the only interests that matter. Nobody much speaks for the traveling public. And, oddly enough, nobody speaks for the City of Dallas. The Wright Amendment particularly hurts Dallas residents and Dallas businesses. Yet the same city leaders who obsess over how to improve downtown and bring business to Dallas seem terrified to state the obvious: freeing Love Field would be a tremendous boon for Dallas.

The small group of homeowners who argue against repeal, fearing it would increase traffic around Love, are, in effect, making this point. Letting Love compete freely would make the City of Dallas a more attractive place from which to travel.

Travelers who live near Love Field would, in fact, reap the greatest benefits. I live in Uptown, in the flight path to Love Field, and fly out of state nearly every week. Thanks to the Wright Amendment’s protectionism, I get the rumble of airplanes overhead without the convenience of a nearby airport. Instead, I make the 23-mile drive—or pay $45 for a cab—to DFW. Like other Dallas-based business travelers, I pay for the Wright Amendment not only in higher fares but in greater hassle.

Restricting airport competition doesn’t just prop up fares. It raises other travel costs, from cab fares and parking to that most precious resource, time. If travel is a big part of your business, it makes much more sense to locate in Irving or Coppell than in Dallas proper.

The same is true for travelers to the local area. Why plan a business meeting in Dallas, far from the airport, when Las Colinas beckons?

The City of Dallas worries mightily about attracting conventions and tourism, yet it happily continues to hand over a monopoly on long-distance travelers to its local competitors. A convenient airport would do far more to attract visitors than yet another promotional slogan.

Elsewhere in the country, local officials work hard to attract service from Southwest Airlines, knowing that it will boost their economies by making their areas more accessible to business travelers. Albany, New York, even built an entire new airport terminal on spec, gambling, correctly, that the facility would lure Southwest.

Here in Dallas, we already have Southwest. It just can’t take us very many places. Dallas doesn’t have to invest any more money to get real service from Southwest. We just have to get rid of an anti-competitive law. Even if Dallas officials care nothing about open markets and free competition, the city’s self-interest alone argues for repealing Wright.

New York Times
economist columnist Virginia Postrel is the author of The Future and Its Enemies and The Substance of Style.

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