United-Continental Merger Makes Denver to Dallas Love Field Route Reality

United and Continental continue to push out new routes on a regular basis as the two airlines find opportunities that may not have existed before. These are all either new or restarted hub routes, and some are more interesting than others. In this last round of announcements, there was one that stuck out immediately for me: Denver to Dallas/Love Field.

Southwest Airlines Dallas Love Field Snow

Southwest fliers and Dallas old-timers know Love Field well. It was the main airport for Dallas until the monstrous DFW opened in 1974. At the time, the plan was to shift everyone over to DFW, but the airport wasn’t actually shut down. Because of that, the little startup known as Southwest decided to stick around to give itself a competitive advantage for Dallas fliers. Love is closer to the city of Dallas itself. At the time, Southwest was just a little guy so the Wright Amendment, which limited flights from Love only to surrounding states on aircraft larger than 56 seats, wasn’t a problem. But over the years, it became a bigger issue as Southwest went national.

The Wright Amendment has been expanded over the years to include some other nearby states, most recently Missouri, but Southwest wasn’t settling for these little carve-outs and went on the offensive. Southwest fought to eliminate the Wright Amendment while American and others fought to keep it in place. In the end, it was agreed to kill the Wright Amendment but it won’t really disappear until 2014. There will, however, remain a cap on the number of gates at the airport as part of the compromise.

One common misconception about the Wright Amendment, however, is that it impacts all commercial flights. That’s not the case. If you had 56 seats or fewer on an airplane, you could fly anywhere in the US. Legend Airlines decided to give this a try at the turn of the century with some airplanes in executive configurations. It was an interesting idea, but American dropped a nuclear bomb on them by fighting them in court and then eventually adding their own executive flights on the same routes. Both operations were disastrous money-losers but Legend went under and American just went back to normal, another potential competitive threat destroyed.

But these days, there are plenty of 50 seat jets around. While you probably don’t want to sit on those cramped sardine cans for very long, if they’re the only option out there, there could be some worthwhile routes. Southwest, of course, doesn’t operate airplanes that small, so going into Love with an airplane with 56 seats or less could result in a real opportunity. With that in mind, you’re probably wondering what took United so long to fly there from Denver at all, right?

Well, Denver to Dallas is an hour and a half flight and that’s a long time to sit on an Embraer 145 (though yes, I’ve done it and survived). While Southwest can’t fly the route nonstop, it does have single stop flights with no change. Right now, I see five of those per day and they only add about 40 minutes to the scheduled flight time because of Southwest’s quick turns. Meanwhile, you can fly United six times a day mostly on mainline airplanes to DFW. So it might be tough for United to really make this work considering all the external factors. But two things have changed with the merger that I’m guessing have led to this move.

First, Continental already flies to Love from Houston. Other than Delta’s three daily flights to Memphis, Continental has the only non-Southwest service out of Love with its seven daily on ExpressJet down to Intercontinental. So Continental has the gates and the staff set up in the airport already. That significantly decreases the cost of adding new flights there, because there are no additional infrastructure costs. United will even be using the same ERJ-145 aircraft that Continental has in there flown by the same regional airline, ExpressJet. So it’s a very simple addition and might even help with better aircraft utilization.

That alone should be plenty of reason to give this a shot. There’s not much to lose by throwing a couple of regional jets a day into a market where you already have a presence on both ends, but I think there probably is something more to it than just that. I think this is also the beginning of Continental’s more aggressive culture coming in. Continental will take chances on routes whereas United is traditionally much more conservative. After all, this route isn’t a slam dunk. Putting only two flights in a market that’s a business route may not be enough, but Continental’s mindset is that it’s worth trying. I couldn’t agree more.

[Original photo via Flickr user Cordey?]

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