Southwest has announced plans to service the Caribbean and Latin America from 2015, marking the airline’s first venture outside the United States.
Last Wednesday, Houston City Council approved an expansion of William Hobby Airport – a major Southwest hub – to accommodate new international services. The airport will receive new boarding gates and ticket counters, a customs facility, increased fueling capacity, and improved security infrastructure. The upgrade is expected to cost $100 million, and Southwest is footing the bill.
Before acquiring AirTran in 2010, Southwest was strictly a domestic carrier, flying more passengers than any other airline in the United States. Plans for international expansion have been on the table for some time, according to Southwest management, and this was a key reason for the AirTran merger.
Once the airport is ready, Southwest is planning flights to at least 12 international markets, with up to 23 services per day. This should translate to more options and cheaper prices for Houston residents.
But not everyone is happy. The Hobby expansion has been vigorously opposed by United Continental Holdings, which dominates travel between Houston and Latin America from its hub at George Bush Intercontinental. United claims that the plan will drain passengers, and ultimately jobs, from the larger airport.
This doesn’t seem to worry the authorities in Houston, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Southwest proposal. Following the decision, United Continental issued a brief statement: “We believe that splitting Houston’s international air service is the wrong decision for the city’s future, but we respect the fact that City Council did not agree.”