DALLAS — The Houston Airport System’s plan for a $100 million expansion of William P. Hobby Airport hit some turbulence this week as City Council members expressed opposition to a study backing the move on behalf of Southwest Airlines.
The dispute pits Houston’s two dominant airlines, Southwest at Hobby and United Airlines at the much-larger George Bush Intercontinental Airport, against each other.
Bush Intercontinental is undergoing a $1 billion bond-financed remodeling, with much of the debt shouldered by United Airlines.
The Houston Airport System manages both of the airports, as well as Ellington Field.
Houston airport director Mario Diaz on April 9 recommended that the city of Houston approve creation of an international concourse at Hobby that would allow Southwest Airlines to fly to destinations in Latin America with full customs service.
“I have concluded, given Southwest’s existing and sizeable domestic network operation at Hobby, it would not be reasonable to require the airline to relocate to Bush Intercontinental Airport, or even conduct split operations — domestic service at Hobby and international service at Intercontinental,” the airport director wrote in a memo to Houston Mayor Annise Parker.
The mayor had tentatively called for a vote on the Hobby aiport issue for May 16 before the meeting on Monday that drew withering comments from the City Council about a $110,000 study that some called biased.
The joint meeting of the council’s budget and fiscal affairs committee with the transportation, technology and infrastructure committee preceded Tuesday’s full City Council meeting.
“What may be the largest issue perhaps of the century, you all have blown it, in my view,” Councilman C.O. Bradford told Diaz, according to the Houston Chronicle.
“This rollout simply has been a complete disaster,” Bradford said. “I mean, lack of transparency, arbitrary time lines, total disregard, disrespect for council. It’s just unconscionable.”
In his memo to Parker, Diaz cited the study’s finding that allowing international flights out of Hobby would generate jobs and expand the economy.
“The studies determined increased competition will result in an expanded market for all airlines that serve Houston,” according to Diaz. “The findings note other metropolitan areas with more than one international airport — South Florida, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York-New Jersey — have seen expanded service, particularly where low-cost carriers like Southwest helped spur competition.”
However, the closest parallel to the Houston situation may be found in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where Southwest Airlines flies from Dallas Love Field in limited competition with American Airlines at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
Beginning in 2014, Southwest will be allowed to fly to any destination in the United States from Love Field, where a new terminal is scheduled to open the same year.
At DFW, another bond-financed remodeling of the four original terminals is also underway.
American, which is in bankruptcy, will face direct competition from Southwest under the new rules, though Love Field can support only a fraction of the flights at DFW.
In Houston, United Continental Holdings represents the merged airlines of United and Continental Airlines, formerly based in Houston.
After emerging from bankruptcy, United merged with Continental to create the nation’s largest airline, surpassing American and Delta.