United Hates Houston’s Plan for Two International Airports

Residents of the Dallas/Ft Worth Metroplex probably rolled their eyes at the news that Southwest is pushing for more freedom at Houston’s close-in Hobby airport. They’ve seen it all before with Southwest’s fight against American at Love Field, right? Not quite. This is a very different situation, but don’t worry, there is still legacy airline opposition to make it interesting. This time it’s United.

United Fights against Hobby International Expansion

Houston has two airports with substantial commercial service. The behemoth is Intercontinental. On the north side of town, this was Continental’s home base and now remains one of United’s major hubs post-merger with flights all over the world. There is a heavy emphasis on Latin America, simply due to geography, but you’ll find flights to Europe and Asia as well.

Intercontinental opened in 1969 as a replacement for the old Hobby Airport on the south side of town. Hobby’s story sounds a lot like that of Love Field in Dallas. It’s an older airport (originally built in the 1920s) and it didn’t have room for the growth needed to sustain the Houston metro area. Unlike at Love, however, Southwest didn’t exist when Intercontinental opened.

In 1969 when the new shiny airport opened, all commercial service made the move, but Hobby stayed open for business with general aviation. Since everyone agreed to move, there was no massive, drawn out fight about who could fly where and when as we’ve seen up in Dallas at Love. When Southwest started up in 1971, I believe it even initially went into Intercontinental (though I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong). It wasn’t long, however, before Southwest moved down to Hobby, where it developed a great little niche for itself.

From 1980 until 2005, Southwest actually served both airports, but it finally pulled out from Intercontinental completely in order to focus all efforts on Hobby. Other than Southwest, there are mostly just a few odds and ends at the airport. Frontier flies to Denver and JetBlue flies to New York. American does DFW and Delta goes to Atlanta. That’s about it.

While there has been plenty of noise up in the Metroplex as American and Southwest had fought out which restrictions should remain at Love, Houston was pretty quiet. That’s now changing.

See, Southwest wants to fly internationally and Hobby doesn’t have a customs and immigration facility. Uh oh. Now it’s time for trouble.

Southwest has decided to push hard on this with freehobbyairport.com. It says it wants to use a new 5 gate facility to fly to “Mexico, the Caribbean and the Northern cities in South America.” I should put the emphasis here on “wants” because Southwest still can’t fly internationally thanks to its backwards technology. The airline says that’ll change next year, but I don’t believe it. So really what we’re talking about right now is having AirTran fly internationally until Southwest gets its act together sometime down the road.

This seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? I mean, why wouldn’t you want to build a customs facility that will benefit the city and increase service levels? The city of Houston agrees, and that’s important because it runs both Intercontinental and Hobby. So everyone’s happy, right?

Hah, I think you know I wouldn’t be writing about this if that were the case. United is not happy. The airline is in the middle of investing in new facilities at Intercontinental and it is threatening doom and gloom.

United says it will hurt its traffic, and that could result in the city losing service. It also says that this will take away customs and immigration resources from Intercontinental, making for a worse experience for travelers there. Oh please.

These are always the arguments used to fight competition. American used even more ridiculous ones in the Love Field fight, so this shouldn’t be surprising. And it isn’t.

Really, if you’re United, wouldn’t you fight this? I mean, you certainly don’t want more competition, so you should put some effort into trying to keep it out. But in this case, it should be a losing battle. Hobby should get a customs facility, and I imagine that’s what we’re going to see happen.

[Original photo via Flickr user NeitherFanboy/CC 2.0]

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