Loaded for take-off

On the Monday before the new millennium, Legend Airlines' new work force, which numbers 150 and still counting, show up for their first day of training. Thirty flight attendants, a dozen pilots, and about 20 customer representatives arrive at the old Aviall building on Lemmon Avenue to be indoctrinated in the Legend way of doing business.

A trainer immediately sends the message that Legend, which plans to launch its first flight from Love Field on February 14, is not going to be your run-of-the-mill, meal-in-a-sack airline.

He informs the customer representatives about the elaborate meal-service plans: everything served on china, with carefully selected, complimentary wines to accompany each dish, plus cloth napkins, real salt and pepper shakers, and a warm towel after every meal. "We have a pork chop that's going to rock the world!" David Farris, director of catering and onboard services, tells his trainees. "It comes with a rosemary-chili rub. Two warm breads accompany each meal."

Created by several guest chefs, including Fort Worth wunderkind Grady Spears of Rialto and Matt Martinez of Matt's No Place in Dallas, the menus feature grilled chicken breast with jalapeño jelly, braised short ribs, marinated shrimp with caramelized onions, and raspberry mousse. The after-8 p.m. flights will serve hot snacks such as chicken wings, quesadillas, poached fruit, and cheese. All the meats will be branded with a Legend insignia, and the lunches will include a ribbon-tied box containing chocolate truffles.

"It's a take-away dessert that the boss can give to his executive assistant," Farris says. "It's just one of many things that sets us apart from the other airlines that shall remain nameless -- the Legend wannabes."

Referring to established airlines as Legend wannabes is the height of hubris from an airline that almost wasn't -- an airline that hasn't taken a single reservation, an upstart in a field where 99 percent of newcomers fail.

Legend's brutal and costly battle to get off the ground is, in fact, aviation legend. With business airfares and customer complaints at record highs, local businessman Bruce Leadbetter hatched the idea of launching an all-first-class airline with prices equivalent to walk-up coach fares on the other airlines. He wanted to base it at underused Love Field, which he figured would be attractive to businessmen in a hurry, could help revitalize an economically depressed area of Dallas, and provide his aircraft-maintenance company -- Dalfort Aviation -- with a steady stream of business.

Although the Wright Amendment restricted interstate flights from Love Field to Texas' four adjoining states -- Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico -- Leadbetter found a loophole. The Wright Amendment allowed unrestricted flights to aircraft with 56 or fewer seats. His plan: Take large jets that normally seat 100 or more passengers and put in half the number of seats with twice as much room, and allow unlimited carry-on baggage.

Leadbetter brought former Federal Aviation Administration Director Allan McArtor on board to spearhead the company. That was nearly four years ago. But instead of building a company, they found themselves engaged in legal warfare. First, the Department of Transportation ruled that the Wright Amendment covered only planes originally built with 56 seats or less -- a blow to Legend's business plan.

McArtor counterattacked by waging a huge lobbying effort on Capitol Hill, enlisting Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby to sponsor an amendment that allowed any type of 56-seat plane to fly out of Love Field. Shelby's amendment also allowed interstate travel from Love Field to three more states.

For a time, it was all systems go. Then the city of Fort Worth and American Airlines joined forces and sued Dallas and Legend in state court, claiming that expanded flights out of Love Field violated the bond covenants the two cities signed a quarter-century ago in order to build DFW Airport. They bolstered their fight with an American-financed billboard campaign that ran on the side of DART buses.

A Fort Worth judge ruled against Legend, which immediately appealed. Meanwhile, the DOT ruled last December that the bond covenants cannot restrict Legend. Fort Worth and American appealed that decision. McArtor estimates the legal battle has cost each party $2 million so far.

Fortified by the DOT ruling, McArtor set out once again to raise funds to get Legend off the ground. By last spring, he'd raised $62 million from 55 individual and institutional investors, whom he won't name.

"Most of it was spent on lawyers," he says, only partly in jest. The rest allowed him to begin leasing and refurbishing planes. He has acquired six DC-9s so far, and has outfitted them with cushy leather seats.

Two weeks ago, Fort Worth and American went back to state court to enjoin Legend from flying, but McArtor is optimistic Legend will prevail.

"Now it's all blocking and tackling," says McArtor, who is bitter about Fort Worth's and American's strong-arm tactics. "They knew all along they would lose to federal law, that the bond ordinance was not enforceable under deregulation. Their strategy was designed to make the legal battle so costly for us, it would give Legend crib death."

American Airlines did not respond by press time to requests for comment.

Barring any more legal delays, Legend's remaining challenge is to beat the odds of start-ups. Since the airlines were deregulated in the late 1970s, 59 jet airlines have been launched. Today, only two of them -- America West and Midwest Express -- are still in existence.

"If I thought Legend would have the same probability curve as the other start-up airlines, I wouldn't have gotten involved," McArtor says. "Flying out of Love Field gives us a high probability of success, and American Airlines knows it. American doesn't want any competition, because they have the highest-priced business ticket in the industry."

Industry experts concur that Legend has a good shot. "Legend's chances of succeeding are really, really high," says independent aviation analyst Michael Boyd of Evergreen, Colorado. "They have a solid concept that can work very well. Their philosophy is to offer a giant first-class seat and treat you like someone important for the price of a coach fare on other airlines, where you might sit in a middle seat next to a screaming baby and a woman from a Third World country who doesn't bathe. Which one would you choose?"

But even if Legend is wildly successful, Boyd says, it "can't hurt American Airlines, and Love Field can never hurt DFW Airport. American is presently fighting off a Justice Department lawsuit that accuses them of unfairly trying to stop competition. I don't think the lawsuit has any merit. But if American persists in trying to stop Legend, a small airline at an airport that can't expand, it will be like waving a red flag in the face of the Justice Department and will validate its claim. The phalanx of special interests that are trying to stop competition in the metroplex are not in the best interests of American, Fort Worth, or Dallas."

Nonetheless, Boyd says Legend must deliver a squeaky-clean, high-quality product that flies into at least a couple of big markets. Legend will announce its initial batch of flight destinations on January 14, but McArtor promises his airline will eventually take the business traveler to the major markets and meet his needs better than the competition. To that end, Legend is in the midst of building a six-story garage a mere 40 feet from its terminal -- the closest parking area of any airline in the world -- but also plans to offer valet service. The terminal is designed to offer a change from what Boyd calls the "cattle barns" of the typical airline.

At a cost of $20 million, Legend's terminal will supposedly resemble the airline clubs passengers pay to join. It will be fitted with wood paneling, plush carpets, leather seats, and work stations where passengers can plug in their laptops. Instead of transferring calls from person to person, the customer representatives, housed at the terminal, are trained to meet a passenger's every need.

"We're not interested in getting real big," McArtor says, "just real good."

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