George Will

DALLAS -- Some things, said Marx, appear in history twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. The airport here named Love Field entered America's consciousness through the tragedy of assassination: Lyndon Johnson took the presidential oath on Air Force One on Love Field's tarmac. Today Love Field is again in the news, this time illustrating the farcical consequences of the government's ten-thumbed attempt to manage an industry.

     In 1971, after years of harassing litigation by two airlines averse to competition, Southwest was born. It had just three aircraft and flew only intrastate, between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. This first of the no-frills, low-cost airlines would, under the leadership of its ebullient founder Herb Kelleher, democratize air travel and revolutionize the airline industry.

     The cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, and the Dallas/Forth Worth airport that opened in 1974, tried unsuccessfully to force Southwest to move its operations from close-in Love Field out to DFW, arguing that the new airport depended on this. Today, Kelleher laughingly recalls telling a judge: ``If a three-aircraft airline can bankrupt an 18,000-acre, nine-miles long airport, then that airport probably should not have been built in the first place.''

     But in Washington, reasonableness is no match for the routine and lucrative corruption known as rent-seeking -- economic interests getting government to impose handicaps on competitors. House Majority Leader Jim Wright, from Fort Worth, rode to the rescue of the strong -- DFW and Fort Worth-based American Airlines. In 1979 he muscled through Congress a measure designed to stifle the growth of Southwest and punish it for not moving out to DFW -- an expensive move that would have made it sensible for many Southwest customers to drive rather than fly to their destinations.

     The Wright Amendment restricted interstate service from Love Field to cities in just four states -- Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. In 1997, senators wanting to bring Southwest's low fares to their constituents amended the Wright Amendment to allow flights to Alabama, Kansas and Mississippi. Today, if you want to fly Southwest from Love Field to Los Angeles, you must buy a ticket to Albuquerque, collect your baggage there, buy another ticket, go through security again and board another plane.  


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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