The (W)right to Fly

How little Legend Airlines beat mammoth American at its own game

American Airlines spokesman John Hotard says the timing was purely coincidental. "If all the money we gave to the Democrats bought American all the favors our critics claim it did, then we've never gotten more bang for the buck."

"Maybe it was purely a coincidence," says Leadbetter. "But from what I've seen of how the political process works--from political contributions to high-priced lobbyists--the little guy doesn't have a chance."

Lawyers for Legend filed a request for documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act with DOT, but "were stiff-armed at every turn," says McArtor. First DOT lost the original request, then took five months to fill the request. Except for one slim DOT document, the agency released only Legend's own documents. They refused to release some materials American had submitted as well as a draft of a document that--curiously--was intended for the White House.

Legend considered filing suit to get DOT to release the rest of the materials, but they ultimately decided against it. "You don't tug on Superman's cape," says Leadbetter.

Leadbetter and McArtor thought the surest and swiftest path to gaining clearance for the airline was through Congress. But even before they sought anyone's help, U.S. Rep. Joe Barton came to their aid. A Republican congressman from Ennis whose meandering district includes part of D/FW Airport, Barton was an old friend of Leadbetter's. In fact, several years earlier, Barton's son worked for Dalfort for two years after he graduated from Texas A&M with an engineering degree.

After reading about the DOT ruling on Legend, Barton took it upon himself to propose an amendment that would open up Love Field to the type of large aircraft Legend planned to fly. When Crandall learned about it, he dispatched representatives to pay Barton a visit and called him himself. According to a spokesman in the congressman's office, Barton told Crandall he was better off letting Legend quietly have its way: If he fought them, he would risk making a federal case of the entire Wright Amendment. Barton cautioned him that the government restriction had little support in Congress, and that he might wind up losing the whole thing.

Crandall refused to heed Barton's advice. The next day, he sent a special memo to his 30,000 local employees imploring them to voice their objections to Barton's amendment. "This amendment would gravely harm American's operations at D/FW, by bleeding off valuable local traffic from D/FW to Love Field," Crandall's memo read. "That, in turn, would have a terribly adverse effect on American relative to its competitors in Atlanta, Denver, St. Louis, Houston, etc."

For the next three days, American employees practically shut down Barton's Washington and district offices by flooding them with phone calls. Barton eventually withdrew the amendment, but called for hearings on the Wright Amendment for later in the year.

"Everything with American Airlines is nuclear war," says McArtor. "There is no compromising. In our wildest expectations, we couldn't put a dent in American's operations. If we met our seven-year-growth plans, our revenues would be the equivalent of one year's growth at D/FW. We'll have no more impact on D/FW than opening a runway in Lubbock would."

As Legend's appeal languished at the 5th Circuit and lawyers filed repeated appeals under the Freedom of Information Act to shake free documents from the Transportation Department, McArtor scoured the halls of Congress looking for someone to replace Barton to champion Legend's cause.

Armed only with his story about a need for more airline competition, McArtor says, he found many Republicans and Democrats who were sympathetic to his plight and saw his struggle as more than a local issue. He was assisted by a newly formed association for small airline carriers, headed by Ed Faberman, a former government lobbyist for American. Faberman makes no apologies for spending eight years peddling influence on behalf of Crandall, a man he now likens to "a bad sheriff" running off the competition in "his company town."

"I'm not pretending that [while working for American] I didn't made arguments that are inconsistent with the arguments I'm making today," says Faberman over the phone from his Washington office. "Sometimes that happens. But life has changed dramatically. The major airlines have become enormously profitable at the same time they have run off competition. There is a fine line between free enterprise and predatory behavior, and many of the large carriers continually cross it. There is a public need, a long-term need, for people to step up to the plate and allow the free-enterprise system to function. Soon there will be no competition at all, and if you think the fares you are paying now are too high, wait till 2002."

In early summer, McArtor found the person who was willing to step up to the plate. Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama who recently assumed the helm of the powerful Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, had never heard of the Wright Amendment. Introduced to the senator by one of Shelby's former aides who had become a lobbyist, McArtor convinced him that Love Field restrictions were an "interstate commerce issue." Like Kansas legislators before him, Shelby began to blame the Wright Amendment for "gouging" his constituents.

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