The (W)right to Fly

How little Legend Airlines beat mammoth American at its own game

In 1993, when Bruce Leadbetter bought Dalfort Aviation, an airplane maintenance facility based at Love Field, he had no intention of starting an airline. And he certainly had no intention of taking on the behemoth American Airlines, an $18 billion company and the largest local employer, with more than 30,000 employees.

"I would have had to inhale something to want to go head to head with American Airlines," Leadbetter says.

By comparison to American and Crandall, Legend and Leadbetter are the little guys. But Leadbetter is by no means a business midget. A civil engineer by training, Leadbetter started out as a business agent to Lucille Ball in Hollywood in the early 1960s, where he caught the attention of California Gov. Pat Brown, who appointed him to head the Hollywood Pavilion during the New York World's Fair. He was part of a committee that helped struggling pavilions, including the one from Texas, which was foundering because of the financial reverses suffered by the sponsoring Angus Wynne family, owners of Six Flags.

In the course of consulting with the Wynnes' company, Leadbetter made numerous contacts in Dallas and eventually moved here after clinching a deal that converted an unfinished downtown Dallas apartment complex into the Fairmont Hotel. Through the years, he would add other stellar projects to his portfolio. He became partners with the Chicago-based Pritzker family, who own the Hyatt Hotel chain. With the Pritzkers, Leadbetter helped take Braniff Airlines out of bankruptcy in 1982 and then sell it in 1987. Dalfort Aviation was part of the Braniff package, but the Pritzkers and Leadbetter held on to it for a while. Leadbetter sold his interest in Dalfort in the late 1980s and acquired it again in 1993.

Leadbetter had envisioned expanding Dalfort's operation from heavy maintenance to airplane manufacturing. He was negotiating a deal for Dalfort to do the final assemblage on the McDonnell Douglas 95 aircraft, but then the machinists' union got involved. They threatened a work stoppage on C-17 cargo aircraft if they lost jobs on the MD-95 in St. Louis and Long Beach, Calif., to Texas. McDonnell Douglas caved, and Dalfort lost the deal.

Leadbetter was determined to figure out a way to increase Dalfort's operations and work force. He wanted not just to improve his bottom line, he says, but to make better use of the untapped resource of Love Field, which had been operating at less than one-third capacity for the past 30 years.

While reading assorted Love Field leases, as well as the infamous Wright Amendment and the history of how it came into being, Leadbetter conceived the idea for Legend.

The Wright Amendment consists of a single page of predictably dull legislative language. But the events that led to its passage include some of the most extraordinary and colorful moments in the history of Dallas and Fort Worth's bitter rivalry--not to mention the most vicious, under-handed battles in the history of airline competition.

Fort Worth has always had an inferiority complex when it comes to Dallas, and nowhere was that more apparent than in its jealousy of Dallas' thriving Love Field. In the early 1950s, Fort Worth decided to build its own airport to compete with Love--the Amon Carter Field, built halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. Carter Field--later named Greater Southwest International--never attracted the airlines and passengers for which city fathers had hoped. Jokingly referred to as the longest bowling alley in the world, Greater Southwest and its concourses languished as Love Field continued to grow and prosper, much to Fort Worth's chagrin.

Both cities continued to ask Washington to ply them with more federal dollars for their respective airfields, which didn't make much sense to the Civil Aeronautics Board, the precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration. Love Field was landlocked, with no more room to grow, and the board was unwilling to keep shoring up Fort Worth's moribund airport a mere 10 miles away from Love. The CAB gave the two cities an ultimatum: Either they jointly select a site for a regional airport, or the feds would do it for them.

"It was a shotgun marriage arranged to quell the internecine warfare between Dallas and Fort Worth," recalls Walt Humann, a longtime Dallas businessman and member of the elite Dallas Citizens Council.

The cities finally put their rivalries behind them and chose a location that straddled the Tarrant and Dallas County lines--but at the time seemed far from civilization. In 1968, the two cities drew up a concurrent bond ordinance that empowered the 11 members of the Dallas/Fort Worth Regional Airport Board to issue bonds to build the airport. The ordinance also called for the two cities to support the full development of D/FW airport by the earliest practical date by phasing out service by "certificated air carriers" at their respective airports, including Love, Greater Southwest, Meacham, and Redbird. The airlines at Love Field signed agreements in 1970 to transfer their operations to D/FW, which opened in 1974.

Fort Worth eventually bulldozed Greater Southwest, and Love Field might have met the same fate--had it not been for a plucky upstart intrastate carrier called Southwest Airlines. While the two cities were busy preparing for the birth of their regional airport and wooing American Airlines to move its corporate headquarters there, Southwest was fighting lengthy, expensive administrative and legal challenges to their right to exist mounted by Texas International and Braniff.

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