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American may opt to halt Love flights

Updated:
CEO says move possible if east gates denied

FORT WORTH - American Airlines Inc. would consider suspending long-haul flights at Love Field on May 28 if Dallas officials don't allow it to temporarily fly planes from the airport's east concourse, American's chairman and chief executive said Wednesday.

Donald J. Carty also said that the Fort Worth-based carrier has finished building gates in the concourse. Two days earlier, city officials sent a letter demanding that all such construction be stopped.

"We know we can't use those gates without the City Council," Mr. Carty told reporters Wednesday after the company's annual meeting in Fort Worth. "We are not going to try to do anything in there that they won't let us do. We are absolutely respectful of the terms of our lease."

In the letter, Dallas City Attorney Madeleine Johnson told one of the airline's top executives that construction of the gates constituted a violation or, at a minimum, an attempt to violate its lease with the city.

American's lease limits use of the east concourse to office space, so it is seeking an amendment or waiver from the city that would override this restriction.

Ms. Johnson did not return calls Wednesday seeking comment. In her letter, she said the construction could result in a lawsuit by the city.

Mr. Carty said Ms. Johnson implied that American intends to operate flights out of the east concourse without the city's approval.

"I'm a little bit taken aback by it," Mr. Carty said. "I don't know how it got to this point. But as I say, the tonality of our discussions has never been unpleasant. The tonality of that letter from the city attorney I thought was quite unpleasant. And I was a bit surprised by it."

Any interruption in American's flights at Love Field would give start-up carrier Legend Airlines Inc. more time to build passenger traffic without having to compete with the world's second-largest airline. Since the beginning of May, both carriers have been competing for high-paying Dallas business travelers flying from Love Field to Los Angeles.

Altogether, American operates nine daily flights from Love Field, to Los Angeles and Chicago. The airline employs about 50 people at Love Field, many of them transferred from other locations. A suspension of flights may result in some layoffs, Mr. Carty said, but he hopes to accommodate most of the workers at other facilities.

American reconfigured five Fokker F-100s to hold 56 passenger seats to comply with federal law governing capacity on trips to cities beyond Texas and four adjoining states from the Dallas airport.

To match Legend, American offers all-first-class seating at both discount and full-fare coach prices. Legend also offers a new $20 million private terminal, and American has been renovating the east concourse in hopes of providing a similar environment.

"We could have those gates operational in a very short period of time with the city's approval," Mr. Carty said.

American's Love Field flights have been 50 percent full, Mr. Carty said. Dallas-based Legend declined to divulge its figures.

American's plan to fly from the east concourse is on hold while Dallas officials complete a master plan for the airport. That plan, which will be finished in November, will examine how future growth at Love Field should be handled, city officials say. American estimates that the plan will take at least 18 to 24 months to finish.

In the meantime, American must move to new space at Love Field by May 28. It currently shares two gates with Continental Express Inc. near the entrance to the east concourse. But Houston-based Continental, which leases the gates, is adding flights and has told American it won't have space to share by the end of this month.

Dallas officials and Southwest Airlines Co., Love Field's dominant carrier, have offered American the use of four gates on the ground floor of the airport's north concourse. But American has said these gates are too small, the space isn't comparable to that given other airlines and renovations couldn't be completed by May 28.

Even if American suspends its flights, it isn't giving up on Love Field or its battle with Legend. It estimates that up to 70 percent of its best customers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area live closer to Love Field than to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

"They are our most important customers," Mr. Carty said. "We have to find a way to accommodate those customers. We will continue to pursue that even if we don't have space to operate out of on the 28th."
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