Parker, Southwest to Announce Agreement on Hobby Expansion
Mayor Annise Parker’s administration and Southwest Airlines have a deal on how to finance a $100 million expansion of Hobby Airport to give Houston a second international airport, according to City Hall sources.
Details were not available Tuesday night. Neither the mayor’s office nor Southwest on Tuesday would confirm that a deal had been reached, only that Parker and Southwest CEO Gary Kelly have scheduled a news conference for Wednesday morning at Hobby.
An agreement sets up a City Council vote on one of City Hall’s most hotly debated public policy issues of recent years. Parker said last week that if the city and Southwest could negotiate a memorandum of understanding for the project in time, she intended to put Hobby expansion on the May 30 council agenda.
Southwest proposes five gates and a Federal Inspection Services facility at Hobby, which has not offered commercial international flights since Bush Intercontinental Airport opened in 1969. If Southwest gets City Council permission to build and Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly, it plans to start routes from Hobby to Mexico and the Caribbean in 2015.
Houston Airport Director Mario Diaz has suggested that the cost of the expansion could be covered by raising the $3 per-ticket facility fee charged to Hobby passengers on all airlines to $4.50.
Southwest insists that the Hobby expansion will allow it to bring competition to routes to Latin America that will lower fares. A city study projects a resulting increase in passengers that will create 10,000 jobs in the Houston area. United Airlines, based at Bush Intercontinental Airport, opposes Hobby expansion and predicts it will harm the local economy and eliminate 3,700 jobs in the region.
Expansion at Bush
“This is an exciting time for the city of Houston. I think it’s a historic moment,” said District I Councilman James Rodriguez, who represents the southeast area of the city where Hobby is located.
Southwest approached the city a year ago with a pitch to make Hobby an international airport. United did not find out about the proposal until days after breaking ground in January on an expansion of Bush in which the airline may invest nearly $700 million.
Since then, the two airlines have put many of the city’s top lobbyists on their payrolls, mounted aggressive advertising campaigns, sent uniformed employees to council meetings each week and tried to position themselves as Houston’s hometown airline. United officials say much of the Bush expansion project is in jeopardy should the city support Hobby expansion. Southwest officials counter that if the city denies its request at Hobby, it will shop the plan in San Antonio or at other airports it could use as its Latin American gateway.
The debate also has generated intense public interest. Hundreds of people packed a community meeting on Hobby expansion last week, and Councilwoman Melissa Noriega said her office has received more than 10,000 emails on the issue.
Councilman Mike Sullivan, who has stood with United in the debate because so many of its employees live in his District E, said he was unpleasantly surprised by the announcement of a news conference.
“I had not been made aware of this as a council member who’s going to vote on this. I would have thought that I’d get a briefing or a heads-up that the announcement was going to be made before word leaked out on the street,” Sullivan said. “This seems to be very un-transparent.”
A Southwest spokesman declined comment late Tuesday.
United spokeswoman Mary Clark would only say, “We look forward to seeing the details of the proposal.”