Airport finds way out post-Wright Amendment era

Airport finds way out post-Wright Amendment era

By John Kanelis

Once upon a time, there was a fledgling airport sitting between the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. A powerful member of Congress sought to protect it by limiting direct-flight service from a competing airport.

Thus, the Wright Amendment was born, named after the late U.S. Rep. Jim Wright, a Fort Worth Democrat.

The Wright Amendment was allowed to expire in 2014, however, and the result of its expiration has had a tangible impact on smaller airports, such as Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport.

As for that fledgling air terminal – Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport – it has grown into one of the busiest air terminals on the planet, serving more than 53 million passengers annually. It no longer needed congressional protection in the form of the Wright Amendment.

Sara Freese, Director of Aviation for the city of Amarillo, said the challenge now is to get the community to use the airport more than it does, enabling airport officials to lure more carriers to fill up the vacant gates and ticket counters.

Three airlines currently serve AMA: Southwest, United and American.

Congress enacted the Wright Amendment in 1979, just after D-FW airport opened for business. The amendment required flights for Southwest Airlines – which is headquartered at Dallas Love Field – to fly only to air terminals in "adjoining states." Freese said the limitation meant that Southwest could only fly directly to New Mexico, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Freese said Southwest was able to expand its direct service from Love Field prior to the amendment's expiration to Missouri, Alabama, Kansas and Mississippi.

That meant that smaller in-state terminals, such as AMA, could be used by Southwest Airlines to connect to destinations between the limitations set by the Wright Amendment for service departing Love Field.

When the amendment expired this past year, Southwest then was able to schedule flights from Love Field to points beyond the adjoining states, limiting its need to use AMA and other smaller terminals.

Freese said the law expired on Oct. 13, 2014 and the scheduling changes took effect on Nov. 4 of that year. Southwest wasted little time in taking advantage of the change, Freese noted.

The result has been fairly dramatic for Amarillo, she said.

"We lost the Denver route via Southwest," she said, "and we lost the Albuquerque route – and a couple of flights daily to Love Field." She said Southwest still flies a single flight daily from Amarillo to Las Vegas.

Southwest's intent, she said, is to "use the aircraft on other routes."

There's some good news to report, however, according to Freese, who said she believes "we're bottoming out from the effects of the Wright Amendment expiration."

She noted that "flight capacity," the number of seats available for customers flying out of Amarillo, will be down 7.3 percent "year over year" in November. In December, she projects the capacity will be down 5.6 percent for the same period. "The rate of decline is decreasing," Freese said. "I am encouraged by that trend," she said, explaining that "airlines are 'right-sizing' their routes and their aircraft." She noted that the capacity decline for September year over year is projected to be 26 percent, indicating a significant slowdown in the rate of capacity reduction.

However, she cautioned that the "load factor" remains steady, defining load factor as the number of people booking flights. "People aren't using the airlines as we think they should," Freese said.

Freese said AMA recorded 29,499 passenger boardings this past June, compared to 34,945 in June 2014. "We're down 13 percent in boardings year over year," she said.
She encourages people to talk up the airport services, even if they don't use them regularly. "Use social media," she said, "and start talking about the services we offer."

The target audience, she said, are the "route planners" with whom the airport negotiates for additional services to AMA.

"For us to justify more service," she said, "we have to justify our load factors. The airlines want to see the community backing the airport. If you have a healthy airport, businesses want to locate here."

Freese said she and her airport staff are negotiating now with route planners who are looking to move into the Amarillo market. She declined to say which airlines are talking to AMA, but added that "marketing our services has become much more critical to us in this post-Wright Amendment era."

The future isn't gloomy, Freese said, pointing to at least one positive trend that is taking shape. United Airlines, which flies between AMA and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston as well as to Denver International Airport, is "upsizing" its aircraft to 76-seat planes, Freese said.

Freese believes that's an inducement for greater use, which she said the airport will use to dangle in front of the route planners with whom she is negotiating.

The increasingly competitive nature of air travel requires the city to use all its assets wisely, Freese said, indicating that the Amarillo Economic Development Corporation is scouting out business opportunities for the city and the Convention and Visitors Council is "providing information about the community that we're sending to the route planners."

Amarillo confirmed that route planners are starting to "nibble" at what AMA is offering them.