Houston city council approves Southwest Airlines' international plans

Southwest Airlines will operate international flights from Hobby Airport

HOUSTON - Houston City Council voted Wednesday in favor of Southwest Airlines' plans to fly internationally from Hobby Airport.

Southwest Airlines plans to expand Houston's smaller airport so it can fly to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America. The airline said it will pay $100 million for a five-gate expansion, customs facility and new employees at Hobby so the airline can run international flights as early as 2015.

More than 150 supporters and opponents crowded into council chambers for the vote. The plan passed 16 to 1. Councilman Jerry Davis, from District B, was the sole vote against it.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said last week that the airline will cover all costs related to the expansion, and will design and build the five new gates and customs facility to the city's specifications.

"It will be financed with no city debt and no passenger facility charges will be used to reimburse (Southwest)," Houston Mayor Annise Parker said on May 23. "Southwest Airlines has agreed to pay for all of the expenses associated with building this expansion. That's it."

Other airlines will be able to use one of the new gates and the customs facility. Southwest will have preferential use at four of the new gates.

SWA plans to use new 737 aircraft that are more efficient and quieter than older models to eliminate a traffic increase impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

"This is a big win for Houston and the traveling public," said Parker. "Competition will lead to jobs, lower fares and a positive economic impact for the city."

The city estimated that the expansion will add 18,000 jobs and $1.6 billion per year to the local economy.

Southwest has promised low airfare, too.

"We're the low-fare specialist, the low-fare leader in America," Kelly said. "For the first time, you'll be able to have low fares from Houston to Mexico, Caribbean, Central America and South America."

United Airlines, operating out of Bush Intercontinental Airport, said the deal could have negative affects on the city, including layoffs and reduced service to certain routes at IAH because of the increased competition.

United claims that opening up Hobby for international flights will drain $300 million for Houston's economy, jeopardize service and cost 3,700 jobs, many of those being United employees.

Parker said United has a long-term commitment to make Houston its largest hub, and she expects the airline to live up to it.

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