Mike Norman

May 8, 2014

Nothing more to say about Love Field? If only…

The fight over two gates at Dallas’ airport is not the last one.

Virgin America CEO David Cush brashly started his airline’s media-splashy fight for two gates at Dallas Love Field last month, and he made as if to end it Wednesday after the Dallas City Council finally paid attention.

“Everything that can be said on this subject has been said, and now it’s their decision,” Cush told news hounds, as quoted by Terry Maxon in The Dallas Morning News.

He’s right that Dallas leaders must decide whether Virgin or Southwest Airlines or Delta Air Lines will get two contested Love Field gates. City Manager A.C. Gonzalez said he’d make the call by the end of the week.

Oh, but if only the first part of Cush’s statement were true. If we could count on it that after more than 40 years of Love Field fights there’s nothing more an airline executive could say, we’d all be in high cotton.

Council members, after a lengthy closed-door briefing on the matter followed by some open discussion, apparently were ready to step away and let Gonzalez handle it from there. Some gave him attaboys.

“I will be backing you, A.C., in whatever decision you’ll make,” Mayor Mike Rawlings was quoted as saying. A.C. must be comforted.

It’s a tough call. Southwest is the hometown company, but the Justice Department, overseeing a bankruptcy court agreement by current gate leaseholder American Airlines, says Virgin must win to encourage Love Field competition.

The competition angle sounds good, but a highly paid City Hall consultant says Southwest offers the best value to the city, local businesses and air travelers. Awkward.

Council member Philip Kingston has consistently said the lease must go to Virgin because that’s what American has agreed to. And, Kingston says, American has the right under its lease to make that call.

American has other battles to fight and, other than following the Justice Department’s lead, seems to want to stay out of this one.

Let’s say Cush is right, everything has been said and the fight is over. And let’s say Virgin gets the gates. What’s the worst that could happen?

If worst means further fighting about Love Field, forcing the Dallas council to make even more awkward decisions, it’s that Virgin is wildly successful at Love.

Success would mean that Virgin outgrows these two gates and wants to do more at Love.

It’s crucial to know that leases for all 20 gates at Love Field are “preferential,” not exclusive. That means the airline that leases a gate has first dibs on its use, but other airlines must be allowed to share it if the airport is out of space.

Two gates leased by United Airlines are under-utilized, so Virgin might share them. The other 16 gates are controlled by Southwest.

But let’s say Virgin is so successful it wants to grow even more. Southwest won’t easily give up gates on its home turf, and Virgin doesn’t really want to operate out of gates decked out with the name and logo of its competitor.

The one thing that can’t happen is building more gates at Love Field. Dallas has agreed not to do so, and neighborhoods around the airport probably would be up in arms about noise long before things reached that point.

Then the council has to decide how to face success.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Rawlings noted that the mood was “kind of somber.”

But he said council members “should be doing high-fives. Congratulations to the city of Dallas. We’re growing. We’ve got hot properties.”

Yes, hot. And difficult decisions come with them.

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