On Feb. 3, Southwest Airlines announced that starting this fall, it would offer nonstop service between Dallas's Love Field and 15 cities, including Chicago, Atlanta, and San Diego. This was a front-page story in many newspapers in the South and West. So what's the big deal? Airlines add and eliminate flights all the time to a lot less fanfare (except possibly in the cities directly affected). It turns out, this was a special case, and it's no coincidence that the launch of this new service will coincide with the expiration of the 34-year-old "Wright amendment" to the Federal Aviation Act of 1958.
To understand the significance of the timing, you need to know a little about the Wright amendment and the circumstances that led to its enactment in 1980. Back in the 1960s, concerns about the ability of local airports in Dallas and Fort Worth to handle a growing volume of traffic led the Civil Aeronautics Board to order the construction of a new regional airport. In December 1968, the local governments broke ground on the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), which opened in 1974. The plan was to eliminate the existing Dallas and Fort Worth airports, and all airlines serving the area agreed to move their operations to DFW.
In the meantime, a newly formed entity, Southwest Airlines, had begun intrastate operations from Dallas's Love Field and had no desire to move. Since it didn't even exist when the other airlines agreed to relocate to DFW (Southwest was launched in 1971), it was not a party to the agreement and ultimately filed suit to continue operations at Love Field. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its favor.
After the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, Southwest announced plans to offer interstate service from Love Field. To say that made DFW and the other airlines very unhappy would be an understatement. Love Field is only minutes away from downtown Dallas, and since only Southwest would be operating there, it would enjoy such advantages as less congestion, more convenient parking, and other traveler conveniences. DFW and the airline interests took their complaint to Jim Wright, representative from the 12th congressional district (which includes Fort Worth) and arguably one of the most powerful congressmen at the time. Wright sponsored an amendment that prohibited Love Field-based airlines with large or mid-sized planes (those with more than 56 seats) from serving destinations outside of Texas or the contiguous states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In other words, a passenger flying from, say, Dallas to Phoenix would have to change planes in one of the contiguous states, actually buying two tickets and claiming and rechecking baggage at the intermediate city. Obviously, this was not an attractive alternative to flying out of DFW.
Despite these restrictions, Southwest continued to grow and became a very viable airline. DFW by now had become congested, and in 1997, the law was amended to allow Southwest to serve several additional states—Alabama, Kansas, and Mississippi—from Love Field. Flights to Missouri were added the next year. Still, DFW opposed any further erosion of the Wright amendment. Finally, in 2004, Southwest began a full-court press to have the amendment repealed. In 2006, an agreement was reached among all parties that would lift the restrictions in eight years' time—on Oct. 13, 2014. (Through ticketing was allowed immediately, but passengers have still been forced to change planes.)
Thus, the simple announcement of new flights brings to an end what many consider to be one of the more onerous constraints to free competition in the airline industry, with most of the responsibility falling on the shoulders of influential lobbying interests and one powerful congressman.