The fight over flights from a Dallas airport waged by Southwest and American airlines could be won by the best communicator to media and residents.
American Airlines and rival Southwest Airlines compete for travelers' dollars every day. But in their shared hometown of Dallas, the two are currently competing for much more.
Southwest is trying to change a federal law that limits flights it can offer from Dallas' Love Field Airport. American, which flies from the larger Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), is fighting the move, arguing that a change would hurt DFW and consumers.
The law is known as the Wright Amendment, passed in 1979 after a heavy lobbying effort by American. The airline at the time was making a major investment in the just-opened DFW and didn't want to staff two airports, so the law allows flights from Love Field to serve only a handful of US states. At the time, it was justified as a way to build traffic at DFW.
Southwest soars ahead
The wrangle to change that law has become a battle for public opinion in Dallas, a battle Southwest is winning - so far.
Those following the tussle say Southwest's advantage comes from carefully crafted, easily understood messages that stress clear consumer benefits. But perhaps more important is a reservoir of goodwill in the market, thanks to 30-plus years of active outreach.
At American, "people have to overcome years of being fairly arrogant" toward the local media, says David Margulies, now president of Margulies Communications Group, a Dallas PR agency.
In the 1970s, Margulies was a TV reporter in Dallas who covered both airlines. "It was very difficult to get an interview with the CEO of American Airlines. I never got one" while working for the local ABC affiliate, he recalls. "We were just the local media. American's attitude was, 'What do we care about Channel 8? We're an international airline.'" In contrast, the CEO of Southwest was easily accessible and even invited him to dinner.
That perception has changed in the past few years, as the company has reached out to local media. It began stepping up efforts in the Wright Amendment battle last month.
"A large part of what we'll do is education," says Roger Frizzell, American's VP of corporate communications and advertising. "We believe that there is a cost of repealing the Wright Amendment that hasn't been conveyed. ... We have a general belief that it's good for airlines to compete, but it's bad for airports to compete."
American says it would have to move flights to Love Field so it could compete with Southwest if Southwest wins the right to expand there. That would hurt DFW and hurt passengers there by giving them fewer flights and fewer possible connections, the airline believes.
Southwest's position is that more flights from Love Field will mean lower fares for Texas passengers, says Ginger Hardage, Southwest's SVP of corporate communications.
"We're taking our argument from the halls of Congress to anywhere our customers are," Hardage says. "We believe Dallas can thrive with a two-airport situation."
Hardage is hesitant to say her airline's outreach has been more effective than American's. "We believe that we have a persuasive argument, and we believe that our argument is winning, not our PR tactics," she says.
She also wouldn't comment on whether Southwest got a jump on talking to the public early in the debate while American concentrated on outreach to Congress and Texas representatives.
Southwest decided to shift from neutral to opposing the Wright Amendment late last year. The drop-off in short-haul flying that followed 9/11 has hurt its limited business at Love Field as more people opted to drive to neighboring states rather than fly, Hardage explains.
"We wanted to grow in our hometown," she says of the airline's decision to seek the repeal. PR efforts began in January; Southwest is not working with an agency on the issue.
By May, it had created setlovefree.com and launched an employee petition drive that has gathered more than 100,000 signatures.
Southwest executives also have been visiting editorial boards in cities served by the airline. It even conducted a study on the impact repealing the amendment might have on airfares and the Dallas economy.
American and DFW's response
Frizzell says American is preparing to mobilize its employees for a grassroots campaign that will address the costs of having two fully competing airports in the region. It's working with AOR Weber Shandwick.
Frizzell declined comment on why American didn't do broader outreach at the start of this year, when Southwest began talking about repeal. Observers, however, say American held back because it knew its past inattention to local media would put the airline at a disadvantage. Instead of countering Southwest's claims initially, American relied on DFW to carry the anti-repeal message.
Ken Capps, DFW's VP of public affairs, says: "From a PR perspective, DFW is indeed an underdog." Fighting Southwest is "like taking on motherhood and apple pie," he adds.
He did not directly comment on whether American initially left DFW on its own in the fight, saying only via e-mail: "It's important to get the straight facts out there, and that's what DFW has done from the beginning, on our own, as well in conjunction with American."
DFW has tried a variety of tactics. It offered Southwest free rent for a year if it would launch new flights there, for example. It's also been talking about the 268,000 jobs tied to DFW and its $14 billion annual economic impact on the region.
In July, roughly 100 DFW employees went to Love Field to urge Southwest to schedule flights at DFW. Southwest contends its flights would be insignificant and hard to find at DFW. "It's like asking the frisky boutique operator to go into the mega mall," says Hardage.
The airport also polled travelers at DFW and found 85% want Southwest flights there.
"Once we have a chance to talk to reporters or Congress, they get it," says Capps.
Others aren't so sure. Alan Bender, associate professor of aeronautics and an airline economist at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL, says of DFW and American: "I think it would be almost a miracle if they were to successfully mount a campaign" to keep the amendment.
The lesson from the Dallas fight, he says, is that old-line airlines like American have to talk more about the benefits they offer that low-cost carriers don't, such as international service and flights to smaller cities.
Stan Levenson, CEO of Levenson & Brinker Public Relations in Dallas, agrees that "today's marketing has to be benefits-driven. Southwest has done a good job through its grassroots marketing."
American and DFW "need to put a stronger focus on consumers. What they're doing is good but just incomplete," he explains. Rather than saying simply that consumers might be hurt by having two airports, they need to personalize it, talking about people who might find it more difficult to visit their grandchildren in distant cities, for example.
American is not conceding. "We've got a big job to do. It's like starting a race, and the other competitor is halfway to the goal line," says Frizzell. "But we are going to be definitely engaged in the battle, and we believe it's long term. For us, it's time to get into the game."
Capps says the lesson is that air travel issues don't easily lend themselves to simple PR messages. "Almost any aspect of aviation is a very emotional issue. Everybody flies. Everybody has a story. It's important to stick to the facts, not play to emotions. And sometimes that makes the message a lot harder to deliver and be considered," he says.
Southwest's Hardage says the lesson is that airlines need to customize their messaging for each city they serve. "Everything we do is market-specific," she says.
Margulies sees the lesson as one of relationship building.
"You are always building goodwill," he says. "It's a long-term investment."