DALLAS (CBS 11 NEWS) – Virgin America founder Sir Richard Branson knows how to attract attention. First, four years ago, he hosted a big party at DFW International Airport to announce his airline would start flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
On Monday night, Branson returns to North Texas to hold a rally in Dallas to build support for the airline’s move to Love Field Airport, where Virgin wants to win the use of two gates and compete with hometown airline Southwest.
In October, after flight restrictions known as the Wright Amendment end, the airline plans to fly non-stop to not only Los Angeles and San Francisco, but also New York LaGuardia and Washington Reagan National, then Chicago O’Hare Airport next year.
As part of its intensified public relations blitz, Virgin America also set-up a website FreeLoveField.com. The airline says it’s gathered nearly 20,000 signatures.
We asked former airline executive Mark Drusch if Virgin America’s campaign will produce results at Dallas City Hall. “Never bet against Branson,” he said. “However, it’s a lot more than somebody’s coming in and schmoozing heavy. They really have to look at the whole picture and understand that this is now a federal issue and not a local issue.”
It’s a federal issue because of the U.S. Justice Department’s deal to allow American Airlines to merge with US Airways.
American says the government required it to sub-lease its two Love Field gates to Virgin America to boost competition at Love Field. But Southwest, which already has 16 of the airport’s 20 gates, also wants American’s two gates.
A consultant hired by the city manager recommends Southwest get them.
On its new FreeLoveField.com website, Virgin America says if Southwest wins, it will control 90 percent of the airport’s gates – creating a bigger monopoly and reducing the chances for low fares. Many experts agree.
The city manager must sign off on who gets the gates.
If the city doesn’t approve American’s sub-lease of gates to Virgin America, councilman Philip Kingston worries the two airlines will sue the city and taxpayers could take a hit. “It would have extremely strong cases if we were to refuse to consent to the consignments to Virgin and try to steer the gates to Southwest. That would put… I believe that would put the city in a very vulnerable litigation position.”
Kingston believes the city should sign-off on the American-Virgin deal.
Dallas City Councilman Dwaine Caraway says he’s all for vibrant competition, but wouldn’t signal which airline he favors in getting the gates. But he says legal issues are a very important consideration. “Who is going to break the law? Not the City of Dallas.”
Southwest Airlines didn’t comment Monday. But last week, CEO Gary Kelly said there’s plenty of airline competition between Love Field and DFW International Airport.
City attorney Warren Ernst said the city is still talking with the Justice Department about the issue.
The Justice Department also declined comment Monday.
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