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No Love Lost at Dallas Love Field

DALLAS (CN) - Delta Airlines can continue flying out of Dallas Love Field as its nasty gate dispute with Southwest Airlines moves toward trial, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade ruled Friday that Atlanta-based Delta's five daily flights out of two gates at Dallas Love Field do not "unduly interfere with" Dallas-based Southwest under a gate sublease that expired on July 6.

Southwest dominates the airport, leasing or subleasing 18 of its 20 gates from the city.

In granting Delta a preliminary injunction, Kinkeade cited the "chaos and inconvenience" and "great disservice to the public" if Delta were kicked out at this stage of litigation.

Dallas sued both airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration in June last year, citing an "impossible situation." Dallas said the FAA had ordered it to provide Delta long-term gate accommodations.

Dallas said this would force it to violate the terms of agreements to repeal the Wright Amendment of 1979, a federal law that protected the newer, larger Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport by banning long-distance, nonstop flights out of Love Field.

Travel restrictions at Love Field were lifted in 2014 after Southwest hinted eight years earlier that it would move its headquarters away from Dallas.

The Wright Amendment Reform Act of 2006 protects Southwest's preferential gate rights from interference. The city says it is in a Catch-22 : that it will be sued if it acts either way.

The city also sued Virgin American, saying the Burlingame, Calif.-based airline is not interested in sharing its two gates with Delta.

Kinkeade wrote that Southwest's claim of Delta's flights "unduly interfering" with its operations is "simply not supported" by the evidence.

"Up until its announcement on February 26, 2015 of increased flight operations, the evidence establishes that Southwest was able to accommodate Delta without 'unduly interfering with' Southwest's own operations," the 42-page opinion states. "Taking the court's definition of 'unduly interfere with' into consideration, Southwest could have voluntarily accommodated Delta's five flights without unduly interfering with Southwest's schedule when the initial request was made in June 2014."

Preferential use of airport facilities under the lease means the signatory airline is the primary, but not sole, user of the facilities, Kinkeade wrote.

"Southwest does not have an unfettered right to the gates it has leased; and, despite Southwest's argument to the contrary, the preferential use rights are subject to the accommodation provision contained in the lease agreement, which Southwest agreed to and signed," the opinion states.

"Southwest's position is that accommodation is not required as long as they are using the gates at full utilization of 10 flights daily out of each gate."

Kinkeade noted that congressional subcommittee hearing testimony during discussions about repealing the Wright Amendment show the accommodation procedures "were intended to help 'fit those people in' when a requesting airline makes an accommodation request."

"The court finds Southwest and the city are playing a game of musical chairs with Love Field gate space, and with Virgin's 'chairs' not in play in this game, there's no 'chair' for Delta - Southwest occupies all 18 gates and the city consents. The court finds Delta has established it suffered harm from Southwest's failure/refusal to follow its contractual obligation under section 4.06F of the lease agreement."

Dallas officials declined to comment on the ruling Friday.

Delta said it was "pleased" and looks forwards "to bringing the people of Dallas the benefit of Delta's industry leading product and global network at this airport."

Southwest said, "This isn't the end of the case."

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