New Dallas-Fort Worth Airport leader will enter at a challenging time

Posted Saturday, Jul. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport will enter a crucial transition next year when the Wright Amendment restrictions on Dallas Love Field go away and the region’s two busy passenger airports enter head-to-head competition.

DFW has a strategy: build on lucrative international flights, for which it will always enjoy an advantage over Love Field.

The bigger airport — the world’s fourth busiest — already is working on a $2.3 billion renewal and improvement project for its three oldest terminals.

In comes Sean Donohue, a 25-year executive for major airlines including United and, most recently, Virgin Australia. The DFW Airport Board announced Thursday it had selected Donohue to replace Jeff Fegan as chief executive officer.

All Donohue has to do is make all the plans work and develop fantastic new ones to stay ahead in the ever-changing and cutthroat competitive world of airlines and airports.

Fegan, 59, has run DFW for 19 years and held other executive posts at the airport for 10 years before that. He announced in January his plans to retire.

Donohue’s experience makes him a good match for DFW. He comes from the operations side of the airline world, which means he knows what it takes to move airplanes in and out of airports and provide good customer service while doing it.

He’s been with Virgin Australia since 2010, during which time the airline has shifted its strategy from that of a low-cost carrier to provide frills sought by business travelers.

Still, there’s no doubt that running DFW will be a new world for him, the stakes are high and the worldwide fight for passengers will be brutal.

DFW dwarfs Love Field in all aspects of size, number of daily flights and airlines and markets served. Still, the competition between the two has always been fierce because of Love Field’s location in the more densely populated western side of the Dallas-Fort Worth market.

So it’s been with some trepedation that DFW backers have watched the approach of Oct. 14, 2014, when the Wright Amendment will go away. That federal law has hobbled Love Field operations since 1980 by requiring all flights to stop in Texas or one of its adjoining states before continuing to more distant destinations.

Non-stop flights to Mississippi, Alabama and Kansas were allowed in 1997, and Missouri was added in 2005. Dallas and Fort Worth leaders agreed in 2006 on the removal of all restrictions, with the exception of international flights, in 2014.

Since then, DFW’s dominant carrier, American Airlines, has gone bankrupt and is in the final stages of emerging from that process through a merger with US Airways, creating the nation’s largest passenger airline.

The effects of 2008’s economic downturn and higher fuel prices in turn have shifted the dynamics of the air travel industry. Airline executives pick markets very carefully, and they’re willing to walk away from routes that don’t fit their business model.

What all of that will mean for DFW and Love Field is unknown.

Still, Dallas and Southwest Airlines are working on major renovations at Love Field as the new world of competition approaches.

By the fall of 2014, facilities there will all be replaced or remodeled, with a new 20-gate concourse as the main passenger area.

Southwest executives have had plenty of time to develop their post-restrictions competitive plan and select new long-haul markets to serve from Love Field.

Likewise for American, although the Justice Department could require some changes on antitrust grounds as part of the US Airways merger.

That’s the world that Donohue steps into. He has told the Airport Board he’ll be ready to go to work in October. Maybe he should wear combat boots.

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