ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Albuquerque has been playing the airline game with a stacked deck. And it’s been cashing in.
Thanks to a decades-old amendment tacked on to a federal law, Southwest Airlines has been forced to land much of its westbound traffic from Dallas in Albuquerque before those flights head to their final destination in cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
The legislation, called the Wright Amendment, expires this year.
“I believe it’s October 13th,” said Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry in a recent interview. The date burned in his memory is correct.
“It really has been a benefit to Albuquerque in that those flights had to stop in an adjoining state to go west,” said Sunport spokesman Daniel Jiron of the Wright Amendment.
Under the law, which has been in place since early 1980, planes taking off from Southwest’s Love Field home base in Dallas must stop in an adjoining state before heading elsewhere. The measure was amended into law by former Fort Worth Congressman Jim Wright to help protect the new Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and the millions invested to build it.
To abide by the law, flights from Love Field often stop in Albuquerque before heading to destinations like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Once the amendment expires in October, some of those flights will bypass Albuquerque as Southwest seeks to profit from the nonstop tickets it can sell in the lucrative Dallas business market.
“We feel like there’s going to be some decrease in, at least, frequencies to some of the markets west of Albuquerque,” said Jiron. What that decrease will look like is known only to Southwest.
Southwest hasn’t yet released its post-Wright schedules, but it has begun touting the new, nonstop flights it plans to fly out of its Love Field home base in Dallas.
The airline is keeping its plans under wraps until May. “There will be some changes, but we are not expecting them to be drastic,” a spokesman told KRQE News 13.
Industry expert and founder of FareCompare, Rick Seaney tends to agree. “There’s no doubt that there’s likely to be some disruption,” he said recently in an interview via Skype.
Three of the markets Southwest has already announced as nonstop service from Dallas – Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles – are the three most popular cities for flights to and from Albuquerque.
- Las Vegas
- Los Angeles
- Los Angeles
- Las Vegas
“Airlines in today’s world don’t grow a lot. They don’t add a bunch of flights,” Seaney said. “In fact, over the last five years, if you go back and look at it, we have about a 12 percent drop in the total number of flights.”
Seaney’s logic means Southwest is more likely to shift flights than add nonstops to the existing schedule out of Love Field.
The Dallas airport is limited to just 20 gates and is smaller in that measure than the Sunport.
“They only have so many spots at Love Field,” Seaney said. “They only have so many spots they can turn a flight.”
An industry term, an airline “turns” a flight in the time taken to land, offload luggage and passengers, fuel and resupply, then load passengers and luggage and finally take off. Southwest has built a reputation and a significant part of its business model on being able to flights quickly.
While longer nonstops are moneymakers for airlines, they also take longer to turn. By continuing robust service to Albuquerque from Dallas, Southwest turns a single gate at Love Field into the five more it uses at the Sunport.
“On any given gate, depending on how fast you can turn your aircraft, you might be able to get anywhere from 8 to 15 or 16 frequencies,” Seaney said.
Add that frequency to the business travel that’s handled by Albuquerque, and Seaney’s outlook for Sunport service is still fairly bright.
“With any decent business market, and I think that (Albuquerque) is one of them, you’d at least have a couple flights in the morning and a couple in the afternoon. If you don’t have that, business travelers would want to go on a different airline.”
Anxious to sustain the nonstop service to which New Mexico travelers have grown accustomed, Berry and other city officials will meet with Southwest this spring.
The city has already constructed an incentive plan to attract new nonstop service. Jet Blue is the first airline to take advantage of the incentives, which mix reduced landing and gate fees with shared marketing costs.
Berry wouldn’t rule out the possibility of using city dollars to offer subsidies to keep existing flights flying to and from Albuquerque. “You don’t ever want to walk into a meeting like that with anything precluded from topic of discussion.”
“It really is building a relationship. These things don’t happen overnight,” said Jiron.
Ultimately, the future of Sunport service comes down to putting people in seats. “In the air service world,” he said, “it’s basically use it or lose it.”