Delta Air Lines can continue flying out of Dallas Love Field while a legal battle over gate space continues, a federal judge ruled Friday.
“In considering the public interest, the Court finds the chaos and inconvenience of disrupted service by removing Delta from Love Field before the legal issues are decided would be a great disservice to the public,” U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade wrote in a 42-page ruling approving a temporary injunction.
Kinkeade found that Delta’s five daily flights at Love Field do not “unduly interfere” with Southwest’s much larger operation. He also predicted that problems with access to the inner-city airport will continue to arise because it’s restricted to 20 gates as part of the 2006 Wright Amendment Reform Act, and he called on Congress to remove the restrictions.
“To change this no-growth situation at Love Field, Congress will need to act,” Kinkeade wrote. “The flying public deserves more courage from its elected officials about travel to and from Love Field. The time for these elected officials to consider an end to all constraints on Love Field is now.”
Responding to Kinkeade’s comments, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said Fort Worth, Dallas, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines all agreed to limit Love Field’s size.
“Our focus is on DFW [Airport],” Price said. “We have an agreement in place. It was hard fought to get there and we need to continue to stay with it and Love Field knew they were gate-constrained when they agreed to the five-party agreement.”
American, who expressed concern during the five-party talks in 2006 that Southwest could grow unchecked at Love Field if the airport was not gate constrained, said the agreement allowed Love Field operations to expand while maintaining DFW as the region’s primary airport.
“That agreement with the cities has been extremely effective for North Texas, creating airline service that is widely reported to be among the most competitive in the nation,” said American spokesman Casey Norton.
In his ruling, Kinkeade also required Delta to post a bond of $100,000 by Jan. 15 that the court will hold in case Southwest is found to have sustained any damages once the issue is decided at a later date.
“Delta is pleased that the Court has confirmed our right to serve Love Field,” Atlanta-based Delta said in a statement. “We look forward to bringing the people of Dallas the benefit of Delta’s industry leading product and global network at this airport.”
The judge also ruled that Southwest cannot add any flights at gates that Delta uses to operate its five daily flights. Southwest must also inform the court in writing within five days of any reduction or changes in its flight operations at Love Field.
Kinkeade’s ruling could be appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. If a settlement is not reached, a trial could be held in Kinkeade’s court.
“We are evaluating our options,” Southwest attorney Britta Stanton said. “This isn’t the end of this case, so there will certainly be more legal action.”
Dallas aviation director Mark Duebner, who manages Love Field, declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.
The legal battle began in June when the city of Dallas sued, asking the federal courts to help the city determine whether it had to continue to provide gate space to Delta, which flies from Love to its hub in Atlanta.
Delta had been leasing gate space from United Airlines until the end of 2014, when United transferred its leases on two gates at Love Field to Southwest Airlines for $120 million. Delta and Southwest had a temporary agreement to allow Delta to continue flying through July, but Southwest planned to end that deal as the Dallas-based carrier added more flights at Love Field.
Southwest aggressively expanded its operation at Love after the expiration of the Wright Amendment flight restrictions there in October 2014, which had limited most direct flights to nearby states for years.
“If the court does not unwind the private sale of public property the citizens will pay again,” Delta attorney William Dawson argued at a hearing in September, adding that federal funding for airport improvements could be at jeopardy if the Southwest-United sublease agreement remains in effect.
Southwest has 180 daily flights out of 18 gates at Love Field and argued that accommodating Delta was delaying its own flight operations. Southwest Vice President of Airport Affairs Bob Montgomery testified that in some instances, planes were waiting an hour for a gate and there had been two incidents where ground equipment collided, but there were no injuries.
“Full utilization is 10 flights per day per gate,” Montgomery said. “Once we run over that threshold, we start running into severe customer service issues.”