Move to Md., airline is told

Southwest chafes under Dallas rules

March 03, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

State officials have tried to sell Southwest Airlines on relocating their headquarters to Maryland as the large discount flier continues its battle against an arcane federal law that keeps it from expanding in its home state of Texas.

Southwest officials have repeatedly said they do not plan to move, but that hasn't discouraged Maryland and other states from the pursuit. The efforts have gotten more aggressive recently, as Southwest has gotten more vocal in its frustration with limits at its Dallas Love Field headquarters.

Airline officials occasionally say the airline might be better off someplace else, only to deny any plans to move later. Some speculate this is to spur the Texas congressional delegation to help repeal restrictions dating to 1979 from the so-called Wright Amendment. Named for the former Speaker of the House Jim Wright, it was intended to boost the fortunes of the region's newer airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International, where American Airlines is the dominant carrier.

The Wright rule allows flights from Love Field only to seven surrounding states.

As Southwest has grown, it began to argue that the statute stifles competition. American Airlines responded by added flights from Love Field, beginning yesterday.

Southwest ramped up lobbying for repeal of the Wright rule last year and won only a minor victory in Congress - adding Missouri to the list of approved destinations.

Opportunistic outsiders began their own lobbying. Phoenix intends to make a formal presentation soon to lure Southwest's headquarters to Arizona, the airline said. Maryland acknowledged its informal efforts yesterday. And the airline said it has gotten at least four other informal pitches from its large hub cities.

Maryland officials said the state prefers the more informal approach of nurturing the relationship between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Southwest founder and Chairman Herb Kelleher, rather than plying executives with official PowerPoint presentations touting the region's attributes.

"This process is barely beginning," said Aris Melissaratos, state secretary of business and economic development.

"We could have a formal presentation ready by noon, but we think the way this would work out is through a personal relationship, and the governor has developed an excellent relationship with Herb Kelleher."

Melissaratos said Ehrlich and Kelleher have been speaking "executive to executive" regularly since 2003 on the phone or at events such as the christening of the Southwest airplane painted with a Maryland flag and at last year's opening of a new Southwest terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Ed Stewart, a Southwest spokesman, reiterated that Southwest is not planning to uproot its 3,000-person headquarters.

"We're not really thinking about moving at this point," he said yesterday. "But we've got to hear people out, especially when those people are from cities where we have a big presence. But our main goal is repeal, repeal, repeal" of the Wright Amendment.

Stewart said the addition of Missouri to the approved fly list made airline officials optimistic. Other states are lobbying for Southwest service from Love Field, he said, because fares tend to drop when the discounter brings low-fare competition.

Economic development and airport officials in Dallas did not return calls for comment.

At BWI, Jonathan Dean, a spokesman, said officials would be happy to have the headquarters, or any new service. Southwest, the airport's largest carrier with about half the market, offers 165 daily flights and employs about 2,500 in the region.

"The airport considers Southwest a business partner for the long term and any way we can help them grow their business we will do so," Dean said.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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