The resounding refrain from Houston councilmembers was “this is the right thing to do.”
Southwest and United Airlines have been lobbying and arguing over the deal for months now. Southwest’s request to build an international terminal at Hobby was approved in a 16-1 vote.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, surrounded by dozens of employees, says if enough passengers choose Southwest, the airline could add thousands of jobs to the Houston market.
“If the projections of the passenger traffic are correct, which are between 1.5 and 2 million passengers a year, then absolutely you’ll see tens of thousands of jobs. If those traffic numbers don’t materialize, well then you won’t have as many jobs. But in any event, it’s all about competition, it’s all about lowering fares and making travel more affordable and for the first time now, two international markets to the south.”
Southwest still has to work out a final lease agreement with the City of Houston. The understanding is the airline will hold its lease on the Hobby terminal for at least 25 years.
Councilmember Jerry Davis, who represents District B, where Bush Intercontinental Airport is located, voted against the deal, although he says he hopes it works out for Houston.
“As a businessman, I’m looking at hey this might be the best thing since sliced bread, bringing in more jobs and opportunity to the City of Houston. But on the other hand, there’s a period of time where we will have to go through some growing pains and it will affect a lot of people in my district.”
Representatives from United Airlines told the council they’re disappointed but will respect the city’s decision.
United’s Vice President of the Houston hub Stephanie Buchanan says they plan to cut 1,300 Houston jobs as a result of the vote.
“We’ve got several markets that aren’t going to make sense any more. We’ve said that we’re going to cut six percent of our flight schedule and future growth that we had planned we’re not going to have any more. So the jobs are associated with the flight schedule.”
Buchanan says those flights and jobs could be cut as soon as this Fall.
Several councilmembers said they voted for the Hobby expansion after hearing from thousands of constituents who supported the deal. Councilmember Melissa Noriega said her office received more than 16,000 emails asking her to side with Southwest.
As to United’s claim that they’ll cut jobs, Gary Kelly says he’s skeptical.
“All airlines are made up of people, United has great people. I’m a little biased and happen to think that Southwest has the best people. But in any event, it’s all about competition, it’s all about lowering fares and more traffic means more jobs.”
Even so, some councilmembers expressed cautious support for the deal as they questioned what kinds of hidden costs might hit the city down the road, such as the need for additional parking lots at Hobby.
The expansion still requires approval by the Federal Aviation Administration.