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"D/FW avoids key issue in Wright fight"


 
Sunday, June 5, 2005

D/FW avoids key issue in Wright fight
By Mitchell Schnurman
The Fort Worth (TX) Star-Telegram


Who would spend $100,000 on a study and not bother to read it?

That's the claim of the top executive at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, who is
trying to explain why his organization didn't tell us about the potential
savings from repealing the Wright Amendment.

D/FW released a much-ballyhooed study last month that showed the airport
suffering a crippling blow if Dallas Love Field is opened to long-distance
air service.

What executives didn't mention was that the report also had details about
likely fare cuts on dozens of routes. It's the first time that the consumer
benefits of open competition were cited in such a detailed way.

Reporters asked about the effect on fares and were told that they would
generally decline.

Why no specifics?

Jeff Fegan, the chief executive of D/FW Airport, says he didn't know about
them, even though they're detailed in the report commissioned by the
airport.

"I had no knowledge of the data generated for the study," Fegan told me in a
phone interview last week, adding that his staff didn't know, either.

Talk about a blind spot.

To millions of North Texans, fares are the No. 1 issue in the Wright
Amendment debate. I accept that D/FW is more worried about losing passengers
and flights, but weren't airport officials curious enough about fares to see
what their report uncovered?

Fegan said he shouldn't be expected to know what's in statistical tables
provided by the research firm that conducted the study.

"Only the most experienced analyst could look at this and even decipher what
it represents," he said.

My colleague, Trebor Banstetter, managed to find the fare numbers in the
documents and crunch them in time for a story published May 27. He reported
that the study found that average fares would drop more than 30 percent
here, and prices on some routes would be even lower.

Take Fegan at his word -- "I know nothing" -- and that means he and his
staff learned of the fare savings from a Star-Telegram reporter.

Of course, Banstetter had one advantage: He's interested in fares, because
they're central to the Wright Amendment debate.

D/FW managers don't see it that way. They assume that fares will drop with
or without the Wright Amendment -- a hopeful sentiment, considering that
American Airlines' dominance is growing at D/FW and that discounters are
still wary of expanding here.

Fegan says that even if he had known the fare numbers, he still would not
have included them in the 42-page summary given to the public.

"I don't know if we'd do anything differently today," Fegan said.

If D/FW wants to be more than a one-dimensional advocate in the Wright
debate, it needs to see the bigger picture. Otherwise, its credibility is
shot.

We expect American, Southwest Airlines and other for-profit companies to
spin data to their advantage. D/FW has always done its share of spinning,
but the community needs it to behave like an honest broker now.

Repealing Wright could have serious long-term effects on the airport. If
D/FW has fewer passengers, there will be less revenue to cover the airport's
rising costs, including almost $3 billion in debt from a new terminal and
people mover.

But it's hard for the public to know what to believe when it comes to D/FW
pronouncements.

Is it reasonable that opening little Love Field could cost D/FW 21 million
passengers a year? Can we accept D/FW's contention that if Wright remains,
other discount airlines will take on American at D/FW and finally bring low
fares here?

Are we supposed to believe that D/FW executives didn't know what was
included in a study they ordered and paid for?

Don't bank on D/FW's board of directors exerting a firmer grip. Dallas and
Fort Worth, which together hold 11 of 12 board seats, were cut loose from
their financial obligations when the airport sold the bonds for its latest
capital project.

Without the financial ties, the staff has become more insulated and the
board more ceremonial.

I called all 12 board members last week to gauge their reaction to the
airport's handling of the study. Only three talked with me: Chairman Jeff
Wentworth, Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief and longtime board member Max
Wells.

One director, Lillie Biggins of Harris Methodist Fort Worth hospital, said
Wednesday that she would call me back -- after she talked with the airport's
public affairs chief.

By late Friday afternoon, the call hadn't come in.

It's not unusual for administrators to develop agendas and keep their boards
or councils in the dark. Elected and appointed officials always have to
probe to see what they're not being told.

If the mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth, who dominate the D/FW board, were
aware of the fare numbers, their political instincts may have pushed for
fuller disclosure of the study.

It's not only the right thing to do; it's the smart strategy.

D/FW doesn't want to turn the Wright fight into a debate on fares, because
Southwest owns that turf. But it's counterproductive to duck the matter.

Fegan passed some blame onto the consulting firm that conducted the study,
and an author told me that she didn't think fares were a top issue, either.
Her charge was to assess the impact on D/FW.

Fair enough, but D/FW should know better. It's no coincidence that the first
question at the news conference releasing the study wasn't about flights
fleeing D/FW; it was about fares.

Airport officials should confront the issue head-on and explain why the
costs of disrupting the airports will be greater than the benefit of lower
fares. But can they make a credible argument?

They've been wrong a lot lately. Airport officials downplayed Delta Air
Line's financial troubles last summer and then cried about a huge hit when
Delta closed its hub at D/FW.

The airport's chief operating officer, Kevin Cox, publicly attacked
Southwest -- the most coveted potential recruit -- when it rejected an offer
to move to D/FW.

Six months ago, the airport publicized a big incentive package to recruit
low-cost airlines, but it hasn't produced anything yet. And now it releases
a study that predicts doom and gloom for D/FW without bothering to mention
that consumers would save millions.

I criticized the airport for ignoring consumers in a recent column, and its
vice president of public affairs, Ken Capps, requested my data. In an
e-mail, he wrote that D/FW has one of the most comprehensive research
departments of any airport, and that its researchers believed that I was
wrong.

"It is imperative," Capps wrote, "that accurate information be presented to
your readers."

Three days later, the Star-Telegram published an op-ed piece from Capps that
claimed D/FW passenger totals included pockets of strength. But the article
didn't address the consumer question that was the theme of the column.

If those crack researchers had put some time into reviewing their study on
the Wright Amendment, Capps could have broken a real story.

Fegan said Capps didn't go there, because he also didn't know about the fare
details.

Perhaps he had a premonition.

A few hours after the news conference on the study, Capps urged me to cite
some of the claims.

"This was not done as a snow job for D/FW," Capps wrote in an e-mail. "We've
got a lot more integrity than that."

What they need is a little more credibility.


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