DALLAS — Two major airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, are trying to sway public opinion in a showdown between two Houston airports that resembles a recent fight in Dallas.
After making presentations to the Houston City Council Tuesday, the two airlines, operating from different airports, faced a public hearing Tuesday night and prepared for another on Wednesday.
Southwest operates from Hobby Airport. It wants to issue $100 million of revenue bonds, possibly through the city, to expand the airport to allow for international flights. The bonds would be backed by a $1.50 surcharge on Southwest fares.
United, which is in the early stages of a $1 billion remodeling project at the competing George Bush Intercontinental Airport, opposes the project for competitive reasons.
At a City Council meeting Tuesday, city attorney David M. Feldman told council members that Houston cannot prevent Southwest from expanding the smaller Hobby Airport and providing international competition to Latin America and the Caribbean.
If the proposal is considered reasonable, it cannot be rejected based solely on projected economic issues, Feldman said, citing an opinion from the law firm of Kaplan Kursch & Rockwell, which specializes in aviation issues.
“While there are situations in which it would be legally appropriate for the city to divide types of traffic among the city’s airports, none of those situations applies to the present question,” a memo from the law firm read.
Both Southwest and United are seeking to steer public opinion their way.
Southwest said 23,000 supporters of expanding Hobby had signed an online petition to the council.
Union members from both airlines filled the council chambers to overflowing at Tuesday’s hearing.
United, which recently merged with formerly Houston-based Continental Airlines, countered with a study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology research engineer William Swelbar that showed expanding Hobby would cost 1,300 jobs and drain $295 million from the region’s economy.
In 2006, Southwest, which operates from Dallas Love Field, sought to repeal Texas’ 1978 Wright Amendment that restricted Love Field commercial flights to Texas and nearby states.
American Airlines, which dominates the much larger Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, sought to protect its fortress hub.
A compromise allowed Southwest to rebuild the Love Field terminal with fewer gates. Southwest will be able to fly to any destination from Love Field beginning in 2014.
American is reorganizing under bankruptcy as DFW undergoes a $2.3 billion remodeling.