As we go to press, the world's largest airline and the world's most successful discount carrier are waging a nasty battle. American and Southwest, two of the industry's truly iconic carriers, are fighting tooth and nail for the business of Dallas travelers, launching new flights, discounting tickets, and pumping up frequent flyer awards.
This promotional skirmish is atypical not only in its scope and intensity but in its origins as well. It boasts a long, complicated backstory replete with convoluted local politics and outsized Texas characters. Following is the short version of the story together with a summary of its repercussions for travelers.
The North Texas airport shuffle
Before gargantuan Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW for short) was a gleam in a Texan's eye, the cities of Dallas and Ft. Worth both had their own modest airports. In Dallas, there was Love Field; Ft. Worth had Meacham Airport.
Meacham was the lesser of the two airports, and that inferiority rankled one of Ft. Worth's principal promoters and power brokers, Amon Carter. Carter, a media mogul and major American Airlines shareholder, hatched a plan to address the imbalance by creating an altogether new airport to serve both Dallas and Ft. Worth—the Greater Southwest International Airport.
But Carter sabotaged his grand plan by skewing its benefits toward his fellow Fort Worthians, thereby forfeiting the buy-in of Dallas residents and politicians. In particular, the passenger terminal was located on the far west side of the airport—convenient to Fort Worth, but forcing Dallas residents to drive completely around the airport's perimeter to gain entry. In short, the new facility offered Dallas travelers no reason to abandon the more convenient Love Field, and they didn't. As a result, usage of the new airport never reached hoped-for levels and soon seemed headed for financial collapse.
At this point, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) intervened to head off the impending meltdown, withholding airport funding until the situation could be resolved. The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) then mandated that Dallas and Ft. Worth work together to find a mutually acceptable solution. The new airport, officially dubbed Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW) to reflect its two-city affiliation, opened to commercial air traffic in 1974.
A key element of the plan to insure the success of the new airport was to shut down commercial service at Love and Greater Southwest. To that end, all airlines flying to Love agreed to relocate to DFW, and Greater Southwest was shut down when the new airport opened, thereby guaranteeing that DFW could dominate the region with no competition from other airports.
But there was one airline that never agreed to move its operations to DFW, and whose failure to do so would have enormous repercussions for the history of U.S. commercial aviation.
The "Southwest effect", delayed
Southwest began flying in 1971, selling low-priced tickets between Dallas Love Field and Houston and San Antonio. As it happened, the discounter hadn't started service when other airlines were agreeing to relocate to DFW, so Southwest never committed to abandoning Love Field and saw no reason, practically or legally, to join other carriers in shifting operations to the less convenient DFW. The Supreme Court agreed, ruling in 1973 that Dallas had no legal right to forcibly displace Southwest.
When the new airport opened for business in 1974, Southwest was the only airline remaining at Love Field. And so things remained until 1978, when the airline industry was shaken to its foundations by the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act. Suddenly, what had been a closely controlled business became a free-for-all, with airlines allowed to fly wherever they chose and charge whatever prices they thought the market would bear.