Southwest's Airport Plan Wins Houston Officials' Support -- Despite United's Outcry

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Hobby Airport in Houston (photo by Gail Delaughter/KUHF)

(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF)  On the eve of a Houston City Council vote to decide whether Southwest Airlines can build a new international terminal at Hobby Airport, Mayor Annise Parker is formally throwing her support behind the proposal -- and a majority of city council members are also behind the plans.

The city council is set to vote next week on whether to allow Southwest to build a new $100 million facility at the smaller of Houston's two commercial airports. Southwest wants to build five gates and a customs facility to accommodate flights to Mexico and the Caribbean, but the proposal has faced a huge protest from United Airlines, the main tenant at Houston's hub airport, Bush Intercontinental.

United launched a huge lobbying and PR campaign against the move, predicting dire consequences for the local economy if international traffic is split between the two airports. United's own economic study forecasted a $300 million economic hit if the plan goes forward.  But according to another study from the Houston Airport System, international service at Hobby would translate into a $1.6 billion economic gain.

At a Hobby Airport news conference,  Parker announced that Southwest has agreed to cover the entire cost of the terminal's construction and the city will incur no debt.  She also stressed that  Southwest is required to abide by the city's minority and small business contracting requirements.

"That helps guarantee our local workers get a chance at the construction jobs," she said. "From the beginning I have said that my decision would be based not what is best for one or another airline, but rather on what is best for the city, the local business community, and the traveling public."

The Houston City Council is set to vote May 30 on whether to allow Southwest to begin construction. Seven council members appeared with Parker at her news conference and an eighth council member has also expressed support. That indicates a vote in Southwest's favor. If the plan wins approval, Southwest hopes to start construction on the terminal next spring.

United issued a statement after Parker's announcement, saying it's not backing off on its position that a split international airline hub would cost the city jobs and hurt its competitive advantage.

Bush Intercontinental carries the bulk of Houston's airline traffic, with about 40 million travelers passing through its gates in 2011. Hobby handled just under 10 million.