International flights out of Hobby?

March 16, 2012 4:10:29 PM PDT
Is having two international airports in Houston a smart business move or a plan that could cost jobs and hurt the economy? A controversy is brewing with potentially big implications.

Right now, Bush IAH is a major hub for international travelers. But plans are in the works that could land some international flights at Hobby Airport. Southwest Airlines wants to expand its presence there by adding flights to Mexico and South America.

When Southwest approached the city of Houston, asking to add international flights to Hobby, the city's aviation director listened.

"I'm a fan of competition. I'm a fan of growth for the economy of Houston," said Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz. "I'm a fan of additional growth and services for all people of Houston. That's my job."

Then this week, Houston Mayor Annise Parker sent a memo to councilmembers, saying the city will undertake a study, saying that, "If we conclude that we support the creation of an international terminal at Hobby, then City Council will be asked to approve a memorandum of understanding on May 9."

Former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune says he and past Houston mayors developed IAH specifically as the city's international gateway, and it's a key reason for Houston's economic success to date.

"It's going to pop an economic balloon, which has been Houston's economic growth," he said. "It's going to split a big city -- six million people -- into two small cities. So we're going to have transportation like Austin."

United Airlines quickly sent a letter Friday, saying, "We believe this fundamental change in more than 40-year-old aviation policy would weaken the city's economy and kill far more jobs than it might create."

Councilmember Mike Sullivan says the United employees who live in his district are also worried.

"This is not simply 'We like one airline over another.' It's an economic engine for an entire region," he said.

The city says no final decision has been made.

"I think we ought to wait for the study," said. Diaz.

It's a tight timeline. The city wants to finish its city in the next week or so. Council members could vote on it in May.

We contacted Southwest Airlines for comment, but as of 5pm Friday, hadn't heard back.