The (W)right to Fly

How little Legend Airlines beat mammoth American at its own game

It takes a lot to shock Jerry Bartos, but what the former city council member and foe of government waste, special interests, and dirty politics heard this day was alarming even by Dallas standards.

A cranky fiscal conservative who had become the city's most vocal opponent of the Wright Amendment, the anachronistic federal law that restricts air travel out of Love Field, Bartos was about to learn just how low American Airlines would stoop to protect the amendment and the near-monopoly it gives the airline in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Bartos already knew something about American's bag of dirty tricks. There was the time in 1989, for instance, when a member of Bartos' ad hoc committee studying ways to change the Wright Amendment came to him in tears. The man, Dick Williamson, worked for the Texas Credit Union League of Texas, which served all the credit unions in the state. The credit union for AMR Corp.--American's parent company--was its biggest member. When someone from American learned Williamson was on Bartos' anti-Wright Amendment committee, the company threatened to leave the league unless he withdrew. A frantic Williamson, due to retire the following year, told Bartos he feared he would lose his job if he did not disavow allegiance to the group.

Bartos knew of other similar stories, but none had involved him directly--or so he thought.

But in the winter of 1993, shortly after Bartos left office, former Dallas Times Herald publisher Tom McCartin made a startling confession to him. McCartin had invited Bartos and a DART board member to accompany him on a trip to St. Louis. McCartin's fortunes had waned in the years since he was forced out of the Herald in the mid-1980s. In recent years he had been working as a business consultant, and he was taking Bartos and the DART board member to see a client who manufactured railway safety equipment that might be of interest to Dallas' light rail system.

As the private jet carrying the trio scissored across the sky on its way to Missouri, McCartin turned to Bartos and told him there was something he had to get off his chest. Not long ago, when he was hurting for money, he said, he had agreed to do some work for American Airlines. His single assignment was to dig up dirt on Bartos in an effort to discredit him and his campaign to repeal the Wright Amendment, according to the DART board member on board, who requested that he not be identified.

Before the plane touched down, McCartin apologized to Bartos for his unsavory behavior and assured him that he was unsuccessful in his efforts to find any mud to sling. That was small comfort to Bartos.

McCartin died in February 1994, but his confession was not far from Bartos' mind when two businessmen came to see him last year. They told him they wanted to start a lower-cost, higher-comfort airline catering to the business traveler. They planned to launch the airline out of Love Field and fly to under-served destinations beyond Texas' four adjacent states.

Such long-distance flights out of Love generally are prohibited by the Wright Amendment. But using a little-known provision in the amendment that allowed long-distance flights for planes with 56 seats or fewer, the men planned to take large planes and reconfigure them with 56 roomy, first-class seats--sold at coach prices or below--and fill the rest of the plane with cargo to help defray their costs.

The men had gone to Bartos because he was such a fountain of information on the history of the Wright Amendment and "on where people's ties were." When one of the men said they thought they could get support for their plan from Robert Crandall, chairman of AMR, Bartos told him he was naive.

"American Airlines will end up torturing you," Bartos warned the men. "They play really dirty."

Bartos' words would prove prophetic.

"Welcome to the team! Welcome to the war!"
That is how T. Allan McArtor greets new employees--a work force that now totals a "battalion of eight"--of his fledgling Legend Airlines, housed in a half-empty office suite at the northeast corner of Love Field. Then he hands them an olive-drab pith helmet emblazoned with silver and gold stars, the company's logo.

A highly decorated Vietnam War fighter pilot, McArtor does not use war imagery lightly. But there is no other way for Legend's president and chief executive officer to describe what he and Dallas businessman Bruce Leadbetter, Legend's principal investor, have been through in the last year as they've fought on the homefront of Dallas and on the political battlefields of Washington, D.C., to get their airline off the ground.

Legend found its staunchest opponents to be the political and business establishment of a community that prides itself on being among the most entrepreneurial and business-friendly in the country. The ammunition their enemies used consisted mostly of an expansive, emotionally charged campaign of misinformation and hypocrisy, orchestrated in large part by American Airlines and the local politicians it controls. The old-guard business establishment, represented by the Dallas Citizens Council, publicly opposed Legend. While the largest companies in Dallas privately supported Legend, Leadbetter says, none would say so publicly, afraid that they would anger American.

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