After reintroducing flights at Bush Intercontinental Airport in 2021, Southwest Airlines is now moving to expand its footprint at Hobby Airport with the help of a $20 million boost approved by Houston City Council on Wednesday.
The Texas-based airline will construct seven new gates at Hobby's west concourse, an estimated $250 million undertaking that will take roughly five years to complete. Six of the gates will be used exclusively by Southwest for domestic flights, while the seventh gate will be available for other carriers to use at the discretion of the Houston Airport System.
In the meantime, the city is providing $20 million for Southwest and the Houston Airport System to plan and design the new gates. Once that phase is done, Southwest and the airport system will return to city council with a final cost of construction. Southwest will front funding the expansion, although the city will reimburse the airline for the cost through rent paid by carriers that use the seventh general-use gate.
"[ Southwest has] many options when it comes to future growth across their network," said Jim Szczesniak, chief operating officer for Houston Airports. "We are very excited that they are committed to expanding at Hobby Airport, the first and only 5-Star rated airport in North America, according to Skytrax."
Dan Landson, spokesperson for Southwest Airlines, was equally as optimistic about the airline's future at Hobby.
"While we are in the very early stages of the project, we appreciate the ongoing support from the city of Houston, and the team at [ Houston Airport System], as we embark on this next phase in our more than 50 year partnership," Landson said.
The plan harkens back to a similar, more controversial expansion by Southwest Airlines at Hobby Airport in 2012.
At the time, Southwest Airlines asked the city for permission to build five new international gates, the first of their kind at Hobby, to the protest of United Airlines, which dominated international travel in Houston at Bush Intercontinental Airport. When Southwest Airlines won approval from city council, United Airlines laid off about 1,300 workers. United still operates heavily out of Bush.
This year's decision went off without as much controversy, although a last-minute oddball inquiry from at-large Council Member Michael Kubosh on Wednesday almost delayed the vote providing $20 million for the first stage of the project.
"I've looked at this gate expansion project," Kubosh said during the council meeting. "One of the things I'm concerned about, when I fly into Hobby and it's midnight or after, we don't have anybody to move the gate. We're sitting there on the tarmac for 30 minutes. It's very frustrating to have 100-and-something people sitting on a tarmac that's been delayed on a flight coming into Houston. There's something wrong there."
Kubosh placed a "tag" on the vote, which meant it would be pushed back another week. But about 35 minutes after placing the tag, after council had moved on to other matters on the agenda, he removed it.
"It seems like the only way I can get some things done is to say it publicly," Kubosh said, explaining that at some point during the 35 minutes between his comments a Southwest Airlines representative assured him their gates would be operational even after midnight. "She works with Southwest Airlines, and she's assured me she's going to make sure those gates are open when we fly in late. I guess I'm going to have to tell her when I'm flying in."
Ultimately, council members unanimously approved the $20 million expenditure. Szczesniak, the COO of Houston Airports System, said the authorization and eventual completion of the project is a significant win for the city and its airborne travelers.
"Increased gate capacity accommodates current and future growth at Hobby and increases the overall airport capacity," Szczesniak said. "As air travel demand ramps up, we continue to press forward to maximize the guest experience. We are truly elated with this addition."
There is currently no clear timeline for completion.
This article originally came from Aviation Pros