High-Flying Controversies

Dallas City Council plays charades on Love Field deal

Dallas City Council plays charades on Love Field deal

Virgin America airplane
Virgin America is already selling tickets for flights out of Love Field in October. Courtesy of Virgin America
Southwest Airlines airplane jet flying
Southwest is fighting to add two more gates to its gaggle of 16 at Love Field. Photo by Dylan Ashe/Wikipedia
Virgin America airplane
Southwest Airlines airplane jet flying

Despite mounting evidence that he probably doesn't have a say in the matter, Dallas city manager A.C. Gonzalez announced he would make a decision on the disposition of the Love Field gates by Friday. Gonzalez's pronouncement followed a contentious May 7 City Council briefing on the issue, most of which occurred behind closed doors.

As part of the American Airlines/US Airways merger settlement, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded two Love Field gates to Virgin America last month. Delta and Southwest Airlines also submitted bids but were not selected. The deal is currently awaiting approval from the City of Dallas. 

 ​"Contrary to what may have been reported in any media outlet, I have not thrown my weight behind any particular entity," council member Vonciel Jones Hill said.

On Wednesday, council member Phillip Kingston tried to introduce a motion to prevent the council from going into executive session about the gates, but Mayor Mike Rawlings wasn't having it. "We are going into executive session," Rawlings said forcefully, talking over an exasperated Kingston.

"It's unbelievable that we can't hear this motion, Mr. Mayor. It's disrespectful," Kingston said. 

Another council member was ready to flee the scene rather than hear what Kingston had to say. "We can walk out if we want to. We can stop the quorum if we want to," a council member said off-camera.

When the council returned from closed session, Vonciel Jones Hill let out an earful. "Contrary to what may have been reported in any media outlet, I have not thrown my weight behind any particular entity," she said.

"My opinion is that the City of Dallas is the landlord, and the City of Dallas as the landlord has the final call, whatever that call may be. It is my opinion that it is the landlord's call." 

Hill said that the Five Party Agreement and the ending of the Wright Amendment gives the city a say in the process. "The private parties have exercised their responsibilities. The federal government has exercised its responsibilities.

"It is now our turn as the Dallas City Council, responsible to our citizens, to take on our responsibility. I do not believe that is dictated by anyone other than this council."

Kingston had a slightly different take on the process. "Our obligation as the City of Dallas is to live up to the terms of the contracts that we sign. This one is easy, so I do feel like this has been a pretty profound waste of the council's time," he said.  

 Council member Scott Griggs said the city needs to be careful about negotiating "what's not ours to negotiate." 

Kingston also addressed the LEK study, which heavily backed Southwest Airlines' bid for the gates. The city paid LEK Consultants $50,000 to evaluate proposals from Delta, Southwest and Virgin.

"I'm concerned about that study because I think it represents profoundly backward thinking. That's $50,00 right down the toilet as far as I am concerned. It seems to enshrine this 20th-century — or maybe 19th-century — thinking that somehow competition destroys our city assets. It's like reviving the Wright Amendment," Kingston said.

Council member Scott Griggs worried that going against the federal government's recommendation of Virgin America could land Dallas in hot water. "I don't want to anger the Department of Justice. As you know, we are already being investigated by the feds in the housing department. We certainly don't want a second federal investigation or to get crosswise with the feds again." 

Virgin America founder Richard Branson and CEO David Cush have been in Dallas this week lobbying for the gates, and Southwest is doing its part to drum up support for its bid as well.

On May 5, the Department of Justice sent the City of Dallas a strongly worded letter explaining at length why it approved the bid from Virgin and rejected the ones from Delta and Southwest.

"We have concluded that divestiture to Virgin America, which has no existing presence at Love Field and will introduce a new competitor at that airport, accomplishes the goal of the [increased competition]," reads the letter, which goes on to say the feds "would reject a proposal" from the City of Dallas for either Delta or Southwest to acquire the gates.

Griggs said the city needs to be careful about negotiating "what's not ours to negotiate." 

Meanwhile, Mayor Rawlings tried to lighten the mood. "This is a serious matter, and we are kind of somber, but we should be doing high-fives," Rawlings said.

"Congratulations to the City of Dallas. We are growing, we've got hot properties. We've got Virgin Air in here wanting to do business with us. Delta wants to do business with us. Southwest wants to continue to grow. This is great!"