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"Houston Airport supports idea to allow Hobby Airport to accept international flights"

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Airports boss supports international flights at Hobby
By Chris Moran and Kiah Collier
The Houston (TX) Chronicle

Houston's airports chief announced his support Monday for a proposal by
Southwest Airlines to open Hobby Airport for international commercial
flights, bringing Houston one critical step closer to becoming only the
second city in America to have two international commercial airports within
its limits.
At a news conference Monday, Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz said
that multiple metropolitan areas, including Chicago and Miami-Ft. Lauderdale
"successfully operate multiple international airports and have proven that
the resulting competition lowers airfares and grows the overall metropolitan
and regional air travel market."
"New international air service at Hobby will create competition in the
Houston Latin American market, leading to lower fares and more travel
options for Houston passengers," Diaz said.
Diaz based his assertions and recommendation on a report summarizing the
findings of two city-commissioned studies, which found the proposal would
bring at least 1.5 million additional travelers a year, create 10,000 new
jobs and inject $1.6 billion a year into the local economy.
Until Monday, the report had been withheld from everyone except Southwest
and United Airlines, which has been lobbying against the proposal, and city
officials had remained neutral over whether Hobby should be allowed to
compete for global routes with Bush Intercontinental Airport - United's
largest hub and Houston's only international airport.
The report notes that "United and its Star Alliance partners have a near
monopoly" on service to Latin America, "operating 97 percent of the seats."
The fate of the proposal is now in the hands of Mayor Annise Parker and City
In a statement issued by Parker's office, the mayor said, "I am carefully
considering Southwest's proposal and the recommendation of the city's
aviation director and will take all views into account. With City Council
involvement, we will convene meetings with and seek input from stakeholders,
including airlines, members of the business community, Houston residents,
organized labor and other interested persons. My decision, which I intend to
reach by the end of April, will be based on what is best for the city and
the flying public, not what may or may not be best for any one specific
The statement went on to note that the city would only decide whether to
support Southwest's proposal, and pointed out that the federal government
will decide whether international service will be allowed at Hobby.
If Parker decides to promote Diaz's recommendation, the city will start
negotiating an agreement with Southwest to cover the cost of building a
full-scale Customs facility and international terminal at Hobby, an amount
the Dallas-based carrier has estimated at $75 to $100 million. The council
would vote on the agreement as early as next month.
Southwest's proposal - and foray into the international travel business -
stems from its purchase last year of Orlando-based AirTran Airways, which
flies to Mexico and the Caribbean.
Since the acquisition, the merged carrier has announced new service to
Cancun, Mexico from places like Austin, San Antonio and Denver, Colorado.
Last week, AirTran received the green light from the U.S. Department of
Transportation to begin flying to Cancun from Chicago Midway International
The carrier's Houston proposal incited an epic tug of war with Chicago-based
United, which merged with Houston's former hometown carrier Continental
Airlines in 2010.
United has opposed the Hobby proposal from the moment it got wind of it in
January just days after breaking ground on a $1 billion terminal expansion
project at Bush Intercontinental that it says is now in jeopardy. United
officials have described the studies' conclusions as "fiction" built on
unrealistic, inflated data.
Officials told the Houston Chronicle editorial board last week they will be
forced to decrease service at Bush Intercontinental by 10 percent if the
proposal goes through and cut at least 1,300 jobs.
Noting that the airline is working on its own impact analysis, United
spokeswoman Mary Clark said Monday, "The assumptions supporting the analysis
in the Airport System's reports are fundamentally flawed and lead to
conclusions that fly in the face of reality."
"Our ongoing analysis using realistic assumptions and publicly available
industry data shows that the proposal will significantly harm Bush
Intercontinental, one of the region's leading economic engines, which brings
jobs and business development to Houston," Clark said in an e-mail. "The
fact that Southwest has been using these reports to promote its proposal
well before today's release should raise serious questions about the
reports' purpose and objectivity. We hope the mayor and council will reserve
judgment until they can review better data."

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