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Hobby Airport

Mask mandate lifted for planes and trains

And other forms of mass transportation.

The Biden administration will no longer enforce a U.S. mask mandate on public transportation, after a federal judge in Florida on Monday ruled that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful, overturning a key White House effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Soon after the announcement, all major carriers including American Airlines AAL.O, United Airlines UAL.O and Delta Air Lines DAL.N, as well as national train line Amtrak relaxed the restrictions effective immediately. Read full story

Last week, U.S. health officials had extended the mandate to May 3 requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and in taxis, ride-share vehicles or transit hubs, saying they needed time to assess the impact of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases caused by the airborne coronavirus. Read full story

Industry groups and Republican lawmakers balked and wanted the administration to end the 14-month-old mask mandate permanently.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of President Donald Trump, came in a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, Florida, by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund. It follows a string of rulings against Biden administration directives to fight the infectious disease that has killed nearly one million Americans, including vaccine or testmandates for employers.

Judge Mizelle said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had exceeded its authority with the mandate, had not sought public comment and did not adequately explain its decisions.

A U.S. administration official said while the agencies were assessing potential next steps, the court’s decision meant CDC’s public transportation masking order was no longer in effect. The administration could still opt to appeal the order or seek an emergency delay in the order’s enforcement.

“Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time,” the official said in a statement.

“CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.”

The ruling came down on Monday, issued by one of the lesser Trump judges, which is honestly saying something. For us in Houston, this also means that masking at IAH and Hobby airports and on Metro buses and trains is no longer required. It continues to be “encouraged”, which means that some vaccinated people and immunocompromised people who can’t avoid being in that situation will wear them. We’ll be flying a couple of times this summer, including the trip to take daughter #1 to college, and we’ll have our KN-95s on because honestly, why wouldn’t we? It is what it is at this point. Protect yourself and hope for the best.

The infrastructure bill and the Hobby Airport light rail extension

More good thing we could get from the eventual Infrastructure Bill.

Houston was made and marketed by the slogan “where 17 railroads meet the sea.” Local elected officials now think its short-term future, and the local success of a proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package, is getting light rail to Hobby Airport.

“Yes, there will be some repaired bridges, that’s very important,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said Thursday along a stubbed section of rail south of MacGregor Park. “But in an urban center like this, I hope everybody can see we will get a route to Hobby Airport and other routes that have been waiting to enhance the quality of life for our citizens.”

The national debate over infrastructure places one of the most expensive and controversial projects in Metro’s long-range transit plan front and center locally as officials juggle dozens of smaller bus-focused projects, as well as expansion of bus rapid transit across the region.

Lee, joined by elected officials, Metropolitan Transit Authority leadership and community groups, said new train service to the airport — through struggling areas ripe for investment — could be a primary local benefit of a proposed infrastructure package by the Biden Administration.

“This will be life-changing for them,” community advocate Cesar Espinosa said of the students and elderly residents in southeast Houston who need improved transit options that connect them to major locations, such as downtown and Hobby Airport.


That allowance for planning and prioritizing projects that have local support and ready planning is what officials argue makes light rail appealing. Metro in 2019 won voter approval of a $7.5 billion long-range plan that included a $2.1 billion for light rail expansion, the bulk of that aimed at Hobby rail expansion.

Years of study and planning are needed to finalize the proposed light rail extensions, but Metro officials have suggested a route that extends the Purple Line from the Palm Center Transit Center along Griggs and Long, where it would connect to the Green Line and both would operate along shared tracks into the airport.

Getting the Green Line to Telephone Road or somewhere close remains undecided. Various officials prefer different routes and there has yet to be consensus in the community over whether to use Telephone or Broadway.

Wherever the line eventually is located, officials said they expect it to be a major boost, not only for jobs during construction, but for development in the future.

“If the president’s plan is implemented it will absolutely transform our community,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metro board.

The original idea (click to expand MetroRail LRT) was to extend the Green and Purple lines separately, and have them both go to Hobby. That was expensive and there were questions about the routes, so in the end the plan was one extension to Hobby, route to be determined as noted above. Funding for that would come later, but could be greatly accelerated if the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill develops as hoped. The intent is to boost local transit, and this would certainly do that. Maybe we could even get that extension to Washington Avenue on the other end of the line. A boy can hope, can’t he?

Get your shot at the airport

I applaud the creative thinking, which we will continue to need.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Parking lots at Bush and Hobby airports soon will be home to mass vaccination clinics for the Houston Health Department, as the supply of shots continues to ramp up.

City Council unanimously approved lease arrangements at the airports Wednesday.

The site at Bush’s The Parking Spot opened Tuesday under a short-term lease agreement, with some 6,665 people scheduled to get shots there this week. It is not clear yet when the Hobby location of The Parking Spot will open for vaccinations, although the request for council action said it is necessary “for this operation to begin immediately.”


Mayor Sylvester Turner said he hopes the number of doses coming to the city will “exponentially increase” since the state has opened the eligibility requirements. If that happens, he said the city can open “many more locations” for people to get a vaccine, along with mobile sites that move around the city to reach people who have trouble leaving their homes.

“Please go and get the vaccination where you can, or sign up to receive it,” Turner said. “The goal is to increase the number of sites.”

The request for council action on the airport leases said the Health Department anticipates receiving a large number of vaccines on a more routine basis.

The new sites would double the number of the city’s main vaccination sites, according to the Health Department. It also operates clinics at Delmar Stadium and the Bayou City Event Center. Those four sites are designed to ramp up to 3,000 doses per day, six days per week, when the supply allows. The clinics at Bush Airport, Delmar and Bayou City Event Center are giving out between 1,000 and 2,500 doses per day currently.

The city has also benefited from a federal vaccination site at NRG Stadium, capable of giving 6,000 shots per day. The Health Department said it will consider continuing that site when the Federal Emergency Management Agency demobilizes it, likely sometime in April.

The city also uses health centers, multi-service centers and partnerships with clinics, pharmacies, churches and other groups to distribute the vaccine.

As the story notes, the airport parking lots are a lot less busy now than they usually are, for all the obvious reasons. The city owns the airports, which minimizes the cost involved, which will be covered by federal grant money anyway. The city and Harris County have also asked FEMA to keep the NRG site open at least through the end of May. We’ll see how they respond.

Basically, the city of Houston and Harris County seem to be doing everything they reasonably can to get as many shots into arms as possible. Equity remains an issue, which County Judge Lina Hidalgo brings up.

As Harris County crossed the threshold of one million COVID-19 vaccine shots into the arms of local residents Thursday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo pleaded with local vaccine providers to do a better job of getting doses to the county’s hard-hit minority communities.

Even though she acknowledged that hitting the million dose mark is “wonderful news,” she said during a Thursday press conference that only 12.1 percent of Harris County residents have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared to the 11 percent of all Texans that were fully-vaccinated as of Tuesday.

Hidalgo also pointed out how Black and Hispanic residents still aren’t getting vaccinated at the same rate as white and Asian residents, and challenged other local vaccinators to follow Harris County’s lead by making a concerted effort to change those trends.

“We’ve been going door-to-door in the hardest hit communities to get folks to register for our waitlist, but we need other providers in Harris County to join the effort more forcefully,” Hidalgo said.

“Every organization that administers vaccines in this county has a moral responsibility to reach the hardest hit residents,” she continued.

Again, I think the city and the county have done pretty well here, and I’d bet we would not be above the state baseline for vaccinations if that were not the case. There’s always room for improvement, and since the Black and Latino populations tend to be younger than the Anglo population, the opening of vaccine eligibility to all should help even things out a bit as well. It is up to all providers to do their part.

Metro referendum is set

Here we go.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members voted Tuesday to ask voters in November for permission to borrow up to $3.5 billion, without raising taxes. The money would cover the first phase of what local leaders expect to be the start of shifting Houston from a car-focused city to a multimodal metro region — even if it does not put everyone on a bus or train.

“Even if you ride in your car, it is more convenient if there are less cars on the road,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

The item will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, the first vote for new transit projects in 16 years for the Houston region.

The bond proposition would authorize Metro to move forward on a $7.5 billion suite of projects including extending the region’s three light rail lines, expanding the use of bus rapid transit — large buses operating mostly in dedicated lanes — along key corridors such as Interstate 10 and to Bush Intercontinental Airport, and creating two-way high-occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy toll lanes along most Houston’s freeways.

“It doesn’t do everything we would like to do, but it does everything we can afford to do,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

In addition, the ballot item calls for extending the general mobility program, which hands over one-quarter of the money Metro collects from its 1 percent sales tax to local governments that participate in the transit agency. The 15 cities and Harris County use the money mostly for street improvements, but they can use it for other projects such as sidewalks, bike lanes and, in limited cases, landscaping and traffic safety and enforcement.

Local elected officials and business leaders will soon stump for the plan, which has not drawn sizable or organized opposition but is likely to require some persuasion.


Transit officials would also need to secure an estimated $3.5 billion in federal money, most likely via the Federal Transit Administration, which doles out money for major transit projects. Federal officials contributed $900 million of the $2.2 billion cost of the 2011-2017 expansion of light rail service.

The federal approval will largely dictate when many of the rail and bus rapid transit lines are built as well as where the projects run, Patman said. Though officials have preferred routes for certain projects — such as light rail to Hobby Airport or bus rapid transit along Gessner — those projects and others could change as the plans are studied further.

“Routes will only be determined after discussions with the community,” Patman said. “I don’t think anyone needs to worry about a route being forced upon them.”

Metro would have some latitude to prod some projects along faster than others, based on other regional road and highway projects. Speedier bus service between the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, for example, could happen sooner if a planned widening of Interstate 10 within Loop 610 remains a priority for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which has added the project to its five-year plan. Work on widening the freeway is scheduled for 2021, giving Metro officials a chance to make it one of the first major projects.

I must admit, I’d missed that HOV lane for I-10 inside the Loop story. I wish there were more details about how exactly this might be accomplished, but as someone who regularly suffers the torment of driving I-10 inside the Loop, I’m intrigued. This would effectively be the transit link from the Northwest Transit Center, which by the way is also the location of the Texas Central Houston terminal and downtown. This is something that has been bandied about since 2015, though it was originally discussed as a rail line, not BRT. (I had fantasies about the proposed-but-now-tabled Green Line extension down Washington Avenue as a means to achieve this as well.) Such is life. Anyway, this is something I definitely need to know more about.

You can see the full plan as it has now been finalized here. Other BRT components include a north-south connection from Tidwell and 59 down to UH, which then turns west and essentially becomes the Universities Line, all the way out to Richmond and Beltway 8, with a dip down to Gulfton along the way, and a north-south connection from 290 and West Little York down Gessner to Beltway 8. The Main Street light rail line would extend north to the Shepherd park and ride at I-45, and potentially south along the US90 corridor into Fort Bend, all the way to Sugar Land. Go look at the map and see for yourself – there are HOV and park and ride enhancements as well – it’s fairly well laid out.

I feel like this referendum starts out as a favorite to pass. It’s got something for most everyone, there’s no organized opposition at this time, and Metro has not been in the news for bad reasons any time recently. I expect there to be some noise about the referendum in the Mayor’s race, because Bill King hates Metro and Tony Buzbee is an idiot, but we’re past the days of John Culberson throwing his weight around, and for that we can all be grateful. I plan to reach out to Metro Chair Carrin Patman to interview her about this, so look for that later on. What do you think?

Still tweaking the Metro referendum

Extending one rail line to Hobby Airport instead of two has generated some savings in the projected cost, which can then allow for other things to be done.

The expected price of extending the Green Line and Purple Line light rail to Hobby Airport, by combining the two lines and focusing on a route along Broadway, dropped from $1.4 billion to about $1 billion, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said Friday.

Metro’s board is nearing a final vote on asking voters for permission to borrow $3.5 billion for a suite of transit projects, the first portion of the agency’s MetroNext long-range plan. Officials must approve a plan by mid-August and call for an election, in order to have it appear on the November ballot.

Likely projects for the ballot proposal include extensions of the Red, Purple and Green light rail lines, 75 miles of proposed bus rapid transit and various park and ride additions or expansions.

Because of the estimated $400 million savings, those projects could be joined by a $336 million extension of the light rail line from Hobby to the Monroe Park and Ride lot near Interstate 45, and relocating the Kingwood Park and Ride closer to Interstate 69, at an estimated cost of up to $60 million.

Both projects were popular with respondents during Metro’s year-long public meeting process about a long-range transit plan, and also have support from local elected officials.

The Kingwood site was an obvious choice, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, because it was affected by flooding when Tropical Storm Harvey deluged Houston. The existing site along Kingwood Drive also is time-consuming for buses to navigate, compared to a location closer to the freeway.

The Monroe rail extension, meanwhile, would provide a place for suburban residents to park and then ride the rail to various job centers.

“I think we have some conservative votes we won’t get if we don’t do it,” said Metro board member Jim Robinson, who has pressed for more investment in park and ride locations.

I have no opinion at this time about extending the rail line beyond Hobby. I’d be very interested to see what that does to the ridership projections, which to me are the most important factor. I’m also a little curious as to why this extra rail could be added at such a late date but the proposed Washington Avenue extension couldn’t be. Maybe because there was always going to be something at the one end and we were just trying to decide the details, I don’t know. I will admit to some self-interest in asking this question. Anyway, we should have the final proposition soon, and from there the real campaign can begin.

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

It’s an awful lot of money that comes with a ton of negative effects and which, if the I-10 expansion is any guide, will have short-lived positive effects. So maybe we should just, like, not do it?

A massive remake of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to the Sam Houston Tollway that would be among the largest road projects in the region’s history also is one of the nation’s biggest highway boondoggles, according to an updated list released Tuesday.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project — the umbrella term for the entire $7 billion-plus plan to remake Interstate 45 — is listed in the latest installment of unnecessary projects compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group. Nine projects across the country made the 2019 list, the fifth annual report from the two groups that have argued for greater transit investment.

“We believe that to fix congestion problems we need to take cars off the road,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the TexPIRG Education Fund, a subset of the national group. “We could do far better investing $7 billion in public transit.”

The dubious distinction on the list comes days before two city-sponsored public meetings to gauge ongoing fears about the project. In the past six months, concerns have ramped up against the project as the Texas Department of Transportation and engineers seek federal approvals, following years of discussions.

The report is here, and you can see a very concise breakdown of the issues with this project here. If you want a bit more detail, Streetsblog read what TxDOT itself has to say about the project.

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. “Potential impacts to community resources include displacement of residences and businesses, loss of community facilities, isolation of neighborhoods, changes in mobility and access, and increased noise and visual impacts. . . All alternatives would require new right-of-way which would displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.”
  • “All [build] alternatives would result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion… Proposed alternatives that include elevated structures may create physical barriers between neighborhoods or affect the existing visual conditions of the communities.”
  • The project’s “[c]onversion of taxable property to roadway right-of-way and displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue would have a negative impact on the local economy.” And while at present the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods “are experiencing various degrees of redevelopment,” the state notes that “growth trends indicate redevelopment would continue independent of the proposed improvements to project facilities.”
  • The project will “cause disproportionate high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” And the project’s “[d]isplacement of bus stops could affect people who do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

Doesn’t sound good, does it? Here’s a thought to consider. What if we took that $7 billion that this project is estimated to cost, and spent it all on transit? That would be more than enough to fully build the Universities and Inner Katy light rail lines, plus the Green/Purple extension to Hobby Airport and the Red Line extension out US 90 all the way into Sugar Land. I’d estimate all that would cost three billion or so, which means there would be between three and four billion left over. We could then take that money and buy more buses and hire more drivers so that we could upgrade most if not all of the existing bus system to rapid bus service, we could create some new lines to fill in any existing gaps, we could add more commuter bus lines from outlying suburbs into the central business district and other job centers, we could build a ton more bus shelters, we could fix up a bunch of sidewalks around bus stops, and we could pilot some more autonomous shuttles to help solve last-mile problems and gaps in connectivity in the existing network. I mean, seven billion dollars is a lot of money. This would greatly improve mobility all around the greater Houston area, and it would improve many people’s lives, all without condemning hundreds of properties and displacing thousands of people. But we can’t do that, because TDOT doesn’t do that, and we haven’t gotten approval from the voters, and many other Reasons that I’m sure are Very Important. So get ready to enjoy all those years of highway construction, Houston, because that’s what we’re gonna get.

Metro still talking how to get to Hobby

At some point, we gotta make a final call.

Transit and city officials took turns Tuesday trading barbs over the best way to route light rail from Houston’s East End to Hobby Airport.

In a sometimes-testy back and forth, District I Councilman Robert Gallegos and Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman sparred over various scenarios to route rail from the Green Line’s terminus along Harrisburg near 75th to Hobby.

“You are destroying the East End and I am letting you know now I will not support it,” Gallegos said of one plan that would use 75th Street. “If you are going to do this, do it right.”

Patman later fired back that transit officials had gone out of their way to address the concerns, but some compromise was required.

“I have tried to draw them and it has blown up in my face,” Patman said of efforts to find alternatives.

See here and here for the background. There are a lot of considerations to balance, including how much property would need to be taken, what ridership numbers might look like, and how to connect to employment centers. There’s no solution that satisfies everyone, but Metro wants the best plan it can get that will not lose votes for the overall project. I wish them luck.

As rail in the East End remains under review, officials cooled on proposed plans for light rail along Washington Avenue to Heights. The proposal, advocated by the Houston Downtown Management District, would have extended rail service from Houston’s municipal courthouse near Memorial Parkway and Houston Avenue farther west, mostly via Washington Avenue.

The idea generated wide support among transit advocates, but Patman said it may be too late to add more rail to the plan voters will approve.

“We haven’t had a chance to fully vet it and I am not comfortable going to the community with something that is not fully vetted,” Patman said, noting some people have raised concerns.

I hope it’s not too late. This idea makes a lot of sense. Honestly, the biggest problem may be that just ending the line at Heights Boulevard will leave people clamoring to extend it further, and that may be too much to do right now. I’m okay with putting this off for a little while if what we can get in the end is the maximal extension that can be done. Table this for now if we must, but by all means get back to it ASAP.

Still working on the light rail options for MetroNEXT

The most interesting part of this discussion of where a proposed extension of the Green and/or Purple lines to Hobby Airport may go is unfortunately not on the drawing board at this time.

Speaking before the METRO board, District I City Council Member Robert Gallegos said he’s heard a lot of objections to one proposal that would take the train down 75th Street. He said he worries a rail line would interfere with a big park improvement project.

“We have a beautiful green space, Mason Park,” said Gallegos. “We have a master plan. I’ve met with community three times. They’ve had input on what they’d like to see at that park.”

Other proposals for the Hobby line would put the train on major thoroughfares like Broadway Street and Telephone Road. Board Chairman Carrin Patman said the challenge is finding the most efficient route along existing streets.

“The time to get to airports matters for people using it for that purpose,” said Patman. “The more zigs and zags you have the more time is added.”

At their May meeting, board members also viewed a proposal for light rail on Washington Avenue between downtown and Heights Boulevard, but that plan was presented only for discussion.

The Chron story has some more details.

The long-range plan already includes a 0.2-mile extension of the Green and Purple Lines from their western end in the Theater District of downtown to the Houston Municipal Courthouse. The new proposal, suggested by officials with the Houston Downtown Management District, would continue that extension further, likely by taking the line along Houston Avenue and then west on Washington Avenue. Additional stops would be at Sawyer and Studemont.

“I would be really curious what the ridership models will show,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

Officials stressed the proposal is being evaluated and is not part of the plan, yet.

“We’re looking at it,” Patman said.

With few specifics outlined, many residents of the nearby Sixth Ward, bordered by Buffalo Bayou and Washington Avenue, and the Heights cheered the possibility.

See here for the background. Dug Begley of the Chron tweeted what a Washington extension might look like. I like the idea, but I agree with the commenters who ask why stop there. I proposed what was then a stand-alone and now would be an extension of the existing Green and Purple lines all the way to the Galleria way back in 2009. None of this is remotely feasible now, and there would be engineering challenges even if it were politically and financially doable, but it would be high-quality transit through a part of town that could easily support it, and would offer multiple connections to high frequency bus lines as well as to the Uptown BRT line, which in turn could get you to the high speed rail terminal at 290 and 610. The idea is free if you ever decide to use it, Metro.

How many rail lines to Hobby do we need?

Maybe just one.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members on Thursday agreed to plan on one light rail line to Hobby Airport, as opposed to the two initially proposed as part of the agency’s long-term transportation plan.

The first draft of the plan, dubbed Metro Moving Forward, included extensions of both the Purple Line and Green Line to Hobby. The proposal had the Purple coming from southeast Houston near MacGregor Park and the Green coming from near Gus Wortham Golf Course. The projects represented roughly $1.8 billion of the $7.5 billion Metropolitan Transit Authority plans to spend on major projects and improvements over the next 40 years.

Both of the light rail extensions enjoy support from local officials and residents along the planned routes to Hobby, but the plan of two routes to the same airport also drew criticism. Each of the routes also had skeptics, who noted the Purple Line would travel a loosely developed industrial area for part of the trip, while the Green Line’s straightest path – along Broadway – would anger some residents and force Metro to rebuild a street that the city spent money sprucing up for the Super Bowl in 2017.


Metro CEO Tom Lambert said staff will study the options and return to the board with a suggestion of which line to advance. Based on board comments, however, the Green Line had an edge. Terri Morales noted after driving the Purple Line’s proposed route, she felt there were many more clusters along the Green Line that made sense as potential stations and places where people would want to go.

Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman agreed, noting the economic potential of an East End line.

“I do not think the Purple route as currently designed to Hobby makes sense,” Patman said.

The primary selling point of the Purple Line is it would directly connect the University of Houston and Texas Southern University to the airport.

That potential left the Purple Line some life, in one scenario officials will examine. At the pressing of board member Sanjay Ramabhadran, Lambert said officials will also study if there is an intersection point where it makes sense to extend the Green and Purple light rail lines, then have one of the routes continue the trip to Hobby. That way, both neighborhoods have easier access, without the higher cost of two distinct rail lines.

“I want to see if we have that flexibility to make something work,” Ramabhadran said.

Officials have about three months to work out the details of a final plan, with the revised rail proposal, and then seek more public input. The long-range plan is tentatively expected to be approved by Metro’s board on July 29. The latest Metro can place an item on the November ballot is Aug. 19.

See here for the previous update. There’s more ground covered in the story, so go read the rest of it. I like the idea of finding a way to join the Green and Purple lines on the way to Hobby so that both can ultimately go there. Maybe that means extending the Purple line to Broadway to join it up with the extended Green line. Seems like the simplest solution, though whether it would be the best, or even a workable one, is one for Metro to figure out. We’ll know soon enough.

More details on the Metro referendum

Still a work in progress.

A planned 110 miles of two-way HOV along major freeways with eight new park and ride stations is expected to cost $1.37 billion, with another $383 million in improvements to operate 25 percent more bus trips across the region.

The projects promote new services within Metro’s core area and on the fringes of its sprawling 1,200-square-mile territory. Inside the Sam Houston Tollway where buses travel most major streets and are more commonly used by residents, officials want to increase how often those buses come. Outside the beltway where more than 2 million of Harris County’s residents live, park and ride lots will be expanded and commuter buses will go to more places more often.


Big-ticket items in the plan are directed at faster commutes and more frequent service in transit-heavy parts of Metro’s area. As officials prepare for eight new or expanded park and ride lots and two-way service even farther out most freeways, 14 core local bus routes are primed for development into so-called BOOST corridors aimed at making bus trips along city streets faster by sequencing traffic lights to give approaching buses priority and increasing the frequency of buses.

“From the outset, we are very pleased with where they are putting the investment,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, which advocates for equity in transportation planning.

Still, Blair said the agency is hoping for more specifics on how Metro prioritizes projects, both in terms of funding and the timing with which initiatives are tackled.

“People want to know what they are getting and when,” she said.

Another aspect of the plan will be about getting to bus stops. Officials say they plan to coordinate with city planners and developers to make sure sidewalks lead to accessible and comfortable stops, something many riders say is transit’s biggest obstacle in Houston.

As a reminder, you can always go to for information about the plan and public meetings to discuss it. In a better world, we’d be starting off with a transit system that already included a Universities light rail line, and would be seeking to build on that. In this world, we hope to build a BRT line that covers much of the same turf west of downtown, and turns north from its eastern end. Which will still be a fine addition and in conjunction with the Uptown BRT line will finally enable the main urban core job centers to be truly connected. The focus on sidewalks, which I’ve emphasized before, is very welcome. We need to get this approved by the voters, and we need to ensure we have a Mayor that won’t screw up what Metro is trying to do. I know we’re already obsessing about 2020 and the Presidential race – I’m guilty, too – but there’s important business to take care of in 2019 as well.

Beautifying Broadway

Sounds like a good idea to me.

Not that Broadway

Broadway between Hobby Airport and Interstate 45 may offer a first impression of Houston to first-time visitors, but not the one many civic boosters would like.

The 2 miles along the main road between the airport and the highway include strip developments and aging apartment complexes. Grassy medians along the road are scattered with few trees and shrubs. Little landscaping or lighting welcome travelers or residents coming home.

“Tired” is one word used to describe the area by Anne Culver, the president of Scenic Houston, a nonprofit working to raise $7.5 million to upgrade the area.

“You only have one shot at a first impression,” Culver said. “For many coming to Houston, that first impression is Broadway. … It’s not welcoming.”

Civic leaders envision a Broadway lined with oaks trees, flowers and shrubs in median. Gravel pathways and benches would be placed along the road in the now patchy esplanades. Art Deco-style LED lights would illuminate newly paved walkways and crosswalks.

The push to improve the street comes as Hobby is expected to bring an estimated 1.5 million new passengers annually into the area once its international terminal opens in the fall and as the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston nears.


Scenic Houston and the Hobby Area Management District, the district set up to boost economic development in the area, say it’s the right time to do whatever they can to make the area look as good as it can. They have set out a $7.5 million plan for trees and LED light fixtures up and down the roads. Along the esplanades, gravel and walkways would wind in between benches, flowers and the new lighting. Sidewalks would be improved. The groups are working to raise money from private donors and some funding will come from the management district.

“This was a great opportunity to step into the breach,” Culver said. “If you’re coming in from the airports, the first impression for miles is that the city is unattractive.”

I’d argue that the stretch of I-45 in from IAH, with its unending stream of used car lots, strip clubs, and billboards, is the uglier and worse-impression-making of the city’s entry points. At least Broadway provides a nice view of Sims Bayou. Still, I take their point. Any reasonable thing we can do to make the city look better is worthwhile. Given that TxDOT is already paying to rebuild the street, it makes all kinds of sense to make the upgraded street more functional, which in itself should help to make it more attractive. I tend to fly United so I don’t get this way that often, but I will look forward to seeing how this turns out.

Uber to be available at Houston airports now

This was part of the original vehicle for hire ordinance overhaul, to be implemented later. “Later” has now arrived.


Uber and other app-based ride service companies won coveted access to Houston’s airports Wednesday when the City Council quietly passed new regulations, a move likely to increase competition in a market that has long been a stronghold for traditional taxi drivers.


Mayor Annise Parker attributed the relative quiet to the fact that the months-long debate about ride share companies offered closure on most issues, and the airport regulations came as no surprise.

“We did the heavy lifting when we passed the overall TNC (transportation networking company) regulations,” Parker said.

“If you just walk into an airport and you walk out the front we expect you to get into a taxi,” Parker said. “But if you have an existing relationship with a TNC, whether it’s Uber or Lyft or some other TNC, and you’ve programmed a ride, we want you to be able to get off the plane and get your app and have that vehicle dispatched appropriately. We think we have come up with a good solution.”

That solution is similar to rules established in San Francisco and Nashville, the only other U.S. cities to formally regulate companies like Uber at their airports. Chicago has rules that allow only UberTaxi, a service that connects riders to professional taxi drivers, at its two major airports.

Houston’s rules require the app-based companies to get airport-specific permits and pay the same fees for rides originating from airports that individual taxi drivers pay – $2.75 at Bush Intercontinental and $1.25 at Hobby per departing ride. Before drivers are allowed to register and operate at the airport, the companies would need to be permitted by the city.

There are some other technical aspects to this, but as noted it all passed without a fuss. We tend to either park at the airport or arrange our own rides, so I doubt my family and I would use this much. I did take a cab home from IAH a litte while ago returning from a business trip, so I would be curious to know how the fares would compare. Are you likely to use Uber to or from the airport? Leave a comment and let us know. Hair Balls has more.

Free WiFi finally comes to Houston’s airports


Travelers to Houston’s largest airports will now have access to free WiFi.

The service will be available in all terminals at Hobby Airport and in Terminals A and D at Bush Intercontinental for the tens of millions of travelers through the airports each year, the Houston Airport System announced Monday.

The service will roll out in phases at Intercontinental over the next few months to be completed by year’s end.

Airport officials say the new free network will have faster speeds than the previous fee-based system.

“This new system improves speed and reliability, and it also introduces our customers to one of the most robust WiFi networks found in any U.S. airport,” Houston aviation Director Mario Diaz said in a statement.


In Texas, Hobby and Bush will be among the last major airports to offer mostly free WiFi access. The main commercial airports in Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso all offer complimentary connections.

George Hobica, founder of, which tracks the WiFi options at domestic and international airports, said airports always compete with each other for service and traffic and WiFi has become expected among travelers. He said almost everyone will use the WiFi with either a tablet, smartphone or laptop during long layovers or between flights.

“People can connect with different airports, they don’t have to go through Houston,” Hobica said. “Some hotels have gyms that nobody uses, but people will use WiFi. Everybody has a device when they travel. … When airports don’t have free WiFi, people say, ‘Really?’ ”

I’ll just say this: Last year, my family and I flew to Denver for a wedding. The best fare we got included a four-hour layover in Amarillo on the return flight. As you might imagine, there wasn’t much to see or do at the Amarillo airport, but they did have free WiFi, so it was bearable. If the Amarillo airport can have free WiFi, there was no reason on God’s green earth why Houston’s airports couldn’t have it. I’m delighted we finally have it, but geez it took ’em long enough. The HAS press release is here, and the Fly2Houston webpage has more.

Southwest breaks ground at Hobby

Get ready to dodge construction at Hobby Airport.

The 280,000-square-foot expansion is scheduled for completion before the end of 2015, with short-hop international flights to cities in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America to begin by 2016. This will increase Hobby’s physical footprint by more than 40 percent.

“It’s on time. It’s on budget. We are pretty happy,” Bob Montgomery, Southwest’s vice president of airport affairs, said in a recent interview. “The city of Houston estimated lots of jobs and a huge economic benefit to come from this project. That is absolutely on track.”

Southwest originally estimated to Houston City Council last year that it would spend $100 million. Officials said the actual cost was higher once design and contracts were firmed up.

The airline also had announced it would start construction in May, but a federal environmental inspection delayed the groundbreaking by a few months, Montgomery said. The project was given environmental approval in August.

Houston Airport System director Mario Diaz said the agency will build a $55 million parking garage with 2,500 parking spaces, four to five parking floors and a third-floor pedestrian bridge to the terminal.

It will also spend about $17 million on roadway modifications, including elevated roadways and an extended drop-off curb. The rest, roughly $13 million, will go toward a new central unit that controls air conditioning for the new part of the airport.

See here, here, and here for some background. Southwest will spend about $156 million on the expansion, while the city will spend an additional $85 million. There’s still a concern about ensuring there are enough Customs agents to handle the incoming traffic from the five new gates, but I feel reasonably confident that will be worked out in time. As long as no one is counting on Ted Cruz to be of any help in the matter, at least. The Houston Airport System press release is here, and Prime Property has more.

Council approves Southwest/Hobby deal

You are now free to make lame jokes about Southwest’s marketing slogan.

Council members unanimously approved a 25-year use and lease agreement with the Dallas-based carrier that incorporates a new two-story, five-gate concourse and Customs and Border Protection inspection facility at Hobby into existing terms and conditions.

The 280,000-square-foot expansion is scheduled for completion before the end of 2015, with short-hop international flights to cities in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America to begin by 2016.

If the project is not completed by the end of 2016, the agreement will be considered terminated, according to its terms.

“We have always said that we hoped to have this facility up and running in 2015, and we’re very confident that we can do that,” Southwest spokesman Paul Flaningan said.

The exact foreign cities Southwest will fly to out of Hobby are yet to be determined, Flaningan said, and the airport is not allowed to ask for authorization to add new routes until six months prior to new service beginning.

“Our network planning folks still have to get in there to determine what are the best routes,” he said.

See here for more, and Swamplot for some pictures. Note that the vote was unanimous, so even Helena Brown couldn’t find a reason to vote against it. What more could you want?

First Hobby expansion details announced

Moving forward at Hobby Airport.

The Southwest Airlines-proposed expansion, green-lighted by the Houston City Council last May, calls for construction by the end of 2015 of a new concourse with five gates capable of accommodating midsize aircraft; a federal inspection services facility with 16 stations; three additional baggage carousels; six security checkpoints; and an expanded ticket counter.

The concourse is being designed by Dallas-based architecture and interior design firm Corgan Associates. It is the same firm Southwest selected for a major renovation project under way at Dallas Love Field, home to its headquarters.

Southwest, which is preparing to become an international carrier after its 2010 acquisition of AirTran Airways, will foot the bill for the 280,000-square-foot, two-story expansion that will increase the square footage of Houston’s second largest airport by more than 40 percent. The estimated price tag is $150 million. Construction is to begin in May.

“It’s more than just a terminal expansion or a runway or one of the other many other pro-jects that we do at the airports,” Samar Mukhopadhyay, the Houston Airport System’s chief development officer, told a City Council budget committee on Monday. “This is going to change the functionality, the look and feel of Hobby Airport after we finish.”

Council approved the expansion plan last May. Southwest expects to being international flights from Hobby by 2015, and construction is supposed to begin this year. It’s an exciting time, though it probably won’t feel that way if you’re actually flying in and out of Hobby during construction.

One of the concerns raised by Chicago-based United Airlines, which fought Southwest’s proposal last year, was that staffing a new customs facility would require reassigning officers from Bush Intercontinental Airport – its largest hub – and the Port of Houston to Hobby.

While acknowledging the tough budget climate in Washington, [Houston Airport System Director Mario] Diaz said the airport system is preparing to begin serious discussions with customs about staffing the new facility at Hobby without taking away federal inspectors from Bush, currently Houston’s only international airport.

Saba Abashawl, the airport system’s director of external affairs, told the committee the airport system and the city will be “working very closely” with the Houston congressional delegation to secure adequate federal funding for customs officers.

There’s plenty of time to get this worked out before flights actually depart from Hobby for international destinations. Who knows, maybe the atmosphere in Congress will be slightly less poisonous by then, or perhaps the economy will have taken off to the point that there’s less fanaticism about austerity, thus making the appropriation of funds for a few Customs agents a routine matter. And if there’s a problem with the local delegation, then there’s nothing stopping HAS or Southwest Airlines from forming a PAC to support candidates that will work with them. Point being, while the issues that United raised were real, they’re hardly intractable, and they certainly shouldn’t have been a reason to forego this kind of opportunity. One way or another, there’s a solution.

Free WiFi finally coming to Houston airports

And there was much rejoicing.

Free WiFi is set to land at Houston’s two main airports by year’s end.

As wireless fidelity service becomes a consumer expectation, the Houston Airport System told the Houston Chronicle it is working to develop a complimentary – as well as fast, reliable and easy to use – network for the 50 million or so travelers who pour through Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports each year.

WiFi has never been totally free at the city’s commercial airfields, which first started offering pay-only access in 2005 via Sprint.

Currently, fliers get 45 minutes of free access through Boingo Wireless after sitting through a 30-second advertisement. The city has contracted with the Los Angeles-based wireless giant since 2009, when the airport system says demand for free WiFi was not as high.

But fliers say Boingo isn’t always easy to connect to, and it costs $7.95 a day – less under monthly plans – after the complimentary period ends.

Lisa Kent, the airport system’s chief information officer, said airports have “historically” considered WiFi more luxury than necessity, but “that is changing over time.”

Free WiFi, she said, has become one of the most frequent requests from passengers who submit feedback forms.

People “all carry, or most of them carry, smartphones and tablets and laptops, and they expect to be able to access totally free bandwidth from public entities, particularly airports, where they do a lot of staging and waiting for their flights,” said Kent, who oversees the technology department.

The tech team is still working out such details as who should build and maintain the network and what exactly it should look like.

“Ideally, we would like to have a new infrastructure at least beginning to be installed by the holiday season,” Kent said.

You only have to spend some time in an airport that has free WiFi to realize just what you’re missing at Hobby or IAH. I won’t be surprised if the airports develop a tiered offering, with free service that may be slow and/or include ads, and pay service that will be faster and ad-free. Whatever the case, it’ll be better than what we have now, which is basically nothing unless you have the privilege of being in one of the airline executive waiting areas. All I can say is it’s about time.

Southwest prepares for expansion

Coming soon.

Southwest Airlines will begin construction next year on Hobby Airport international flight facilities, which the city approved in May over vehement opposition from United Airlines.

“I’m extremely pleased and thrilled that the Houston City Council cleared the way for Southwest to build a new five-gate international terminal at Hobby Airport,” Bob Jordan, Southwest executive vice president and chief commercial officer, said during a conference call with analysts and reporters after the airline announced strong second-quarter earnings.


Flights from Hobby to Mexico, the Caribbean and cities in Central and South America will begin in 2015, said Jordan, also president of Orlando-based AirTran Airways, a carrier Southwest acquired last year.

Good times. It’ll be cool to see what the new Hobby looks like and to see what new options for flying to these destinations there will be.

There will still be international flights at IAH

In fact, soon there will be a new airline and a new destination at IAH.

Turkish Airlines plans to start non-stop flights between Bush Intercontinental Airport and Istanbul next year, the Houston Airport System announced in a press release.

The announcement comes three weeks after Council approved an expansion of Hobby Airport to accommodate plans by Southwest Airlines to start commercial international flights from that airport in 2015.

United Airlines had argued strenuously that the expansion would hurt the city’s economy by diverting international air traffic from Bush that all of the airlines depend on to support marginally profitable flights. In fact, the day Council approved Hobby expansion, United announced it would reduce its Houston-area staff by 1,300 employees and that it was canceling its planned service to Auckland, New Zealand.

Turkish Airlines, on the other hand, will start the new route with a Boeing 777-300ER, which seats up to 334 passengers.

See the Houston Airport System press release for more. The point once again is that there will be a fairly small number of international flights out of Hobby once Southwest has finished its expansion there, and they will be limited to Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America. It will continue to be business as usual for flights to other parts of the world, for which IAH will be the only option. Mean Green Cougar Red has more.

On competition and airline prices

I come across news stories of blog interest from a variety of sources. Here’s one that I got from my alumni association email list that has to do with airline pricing; it was of interest to Trinity University alums because it quoted one of my former economics professors.

United Airlines gained a new hold over Newark Liberty after it merged with Continental Airlines, which had controlled nearly 70 percent of the flying business at Newark. United’s dominance is even stronger, providing consumers with a variety of travel conveniences, but also wielding a unique power that travelers and experts say makes flying from Newark more pricey.

To get a sense of the marketshare United commands, consider the snapshot provided by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey: For all of 2011, Continental and United, which were still operating as separate airlines last year, handled 71 percent of the flying business at Newark Liberty — or nearly 23 million passengers traveling through the airport, according to the Port Authority’s data.

Delta and JetBlue Airways, which were among Newark’s four busiest airlines, each commanded less than 5 percent of the flights at the airport. US Airways is ranked fifth with 3.5 percent of the business.

The dominance of a single airline — Continental was the busiest carrier at Newark for more than a decade — brings some benefits, including the convenience of frequent service and lots of destinations, but price-conscious travelers like Levy grumble that the lack of competition also gives United the ability to set higher fares.

“There’s more frequent service. There are more places where you can fly,” said Richard Butler, an economics professor at Trinity University in San Antonio who is considered an expert on airline hubs. “The less wonderful thing is that the hub carrier has increased pricing power.”

That was evident in 2009, when Continental dominated Newark Liberty. The airline’s average round-trip fare to Houston was $336 compared with United’s average fare of $315, according to data collected by the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In comparison, American’s average fare to the Texas city was $209, according to the DOT’s data.

George Hobica, who runs, a fare-finding website, said Continental’s (previous) dominance always made flying out of Newark more expensive than other airports, including others in the region like JFK, LaGuardia and Philadelphia. “Now it’s United dominating,” Hobica said, “and some of the effects of the dominance have shifted somewhat.”

The most dramatic effect of United’s stronghold may be on flights to the Western part of the country — California, Nevada and Denver — where Continental no longer exists as a competitive force.

I don’t know how much there is to learn about the situation we have here with Southwest and the Hobby expansion from this, but one thing is clear: Less competition is generally not good for the consumer. Maybe the Southwest deal will be a boon for the city and maybe it won’t, but it at least makes sense to me as a matter of basic principle.

It’s just business

The fact that Continental Airlines once had a cozy relationship with the City of Houston doesn’t mean that United Airlines should expect the same treatment.

Then two years ago, Continental got married, and it took a new name. Houston renewed the courtship by trying to entice United to locate its post-merger corporate presence here. United responded with a reminder that whatever the emotional component to the relationship between town and trade, corporations are guided by the bottom line. It moved 1,500 corporate jobs out of Houston to Chicago. Some Houston leaders regarded it as a stinging betrayal.

“Why did you buy Continental? Why did you do it?” Councilman Andrew Burks thundered at United executives making their pitch against Hobby expansion to the council last month.

Part of that pitch was that it would cost the city jobs. Former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby seized on what he considered the irony while attending a news conference to announce the Houston-Southwest deal at the airport named for his father.

“Continental, or United, has been very concerned about job losses in Houston. They weren’t so concerned about job losses when they moved their headquarters to Chicago,” Hobby said.

“I know there are hard feelings about the headquarters location, but the merger was something we felt we had to undertake for the company’s future, to protect future jobs,” said Nene Foxhall, executive vice president of communications and government affairs at United.

Let me rewrite that sentence for you, Nene:

“I know there are hard feelings about the Hobby expansion proposal, but giving the go-ahead to Southwest to spend their own money doing it was something we felt we had to undertake for the city’s future, to protect future jobs.”

Wasn’t that hard, was it? You can believe whatever economic projections about this deal that you want, but asking the city to ignore its own report and give you what you want amounts to special treatment. Continental might have been able to get away with that back in the day, but what exactly has United done to deserve it?

Hobby jobs claims

There’s been a lot of discussion about how many jobs the proposal to expand Hobby Airport and allow Southwest Airlines to begin flying internationally from there may or may not create. This story gets to the heart of what really matters.

Expanding Hobby Airport so Southwest Airlines can begin flying to Latin America will create more than 10,000 local jobs, perhaps as many as 18,000.

Or it will eliminate 3,700 jobs in the Houston area.

To City Council members preparing for a historic vote on whether Houston should have two international airports, competing studies, with their statistical formulas that extrapolate jobs from airplane passengers, are dueling crystal balls that offer radically different visions of Houston’s economic future. Will Southwest’s new flights to Latin America lower fares by all carriers, increase the number of passengers at both Hobby and Bush Intercontinental airports and create jobs to serve that growth? Or will it divert so many passengers from Bush that United and other airlines cancel flights and dry up employment opportunities that rely on those lost passengers?


Such a discussion, [Houston Airport System Director Mario] Diaz said, misses the point.

“We’re trying to be precise about a forecast, and that’s where people are getting wrapped around the axle,” Diaz said. The larger question is, does Hobby expansion help Houston more than it hurts it, he said. Tapping into the growing Mexican middle class market by offering lower air fares to Houston will bring in more visitors with money to spend at restaurants and hotels, he said.

“When you ask the (Greater) Houston Partnership, when you ask the Convention & Visitors Bureau, when you ask all of these chambers, they’ve all come to the same conclusion, that whatever the numbers are, it’ll be a net benefit to the city,” Diaz said.

That’s been my sense all along as well. The job creation projections strike me the same way that the obligatory economic projections of a sporting event like the Super Bowl or the Final Four do, more voodoo than anything else. I think Diaz frames the issue correctly, and I believe there’s another group of people who will use this service and benefit from it. There are loads of bus companies in this town that provide round trip service into places like Monterrey and Mexico City. A check on Greyhound’s website told me that a trip to Mexico City takes literally all day – 22 to 26 hours, with transfers – and cost $118; a trip to Monterrey ranged from 10 to 15 hours and cost $53. I doubt Southwest or any air carrier can match the prices, but don’t you think there will be plenty of people willing to pay a bit more to turn a 24-hour trip into a 2-hour trip? That may not be something that will benefit most of the people making most of the noise about this proposal, but it will benefit a lot of Houstonians. That is what this really comes down to. More choices, more options. I have a hard time seeing how that won’t be better for us.

More details on the Southwest deal

Here’s the memo of understanding between Southwest and the city, via Houston Politics. Some highlights:

Construction is scheduled to begin in mid-to-late 2013 with an opening of the five international gates and customs facility in late 2015.

Other aspects of the deal:

  • Southwest will design and build the project.
  • Southwest will comply with city goals to hire minority and women contractors and preference for local firms.
  • Southwest controls four of the five gates as long as they conduct at least four departures and four arrivals daily on each gate.
  • The deal can be changed by whatever lease agreement the city and Southwest negotiate by the time the current lease expires in June 2015.
  • If the two sides can’t agree on what’s known as Project Definition Manual — which covers specifications and other details — or a new lease, Southwest doesn’t have to build.

The city has also released a new report bolstering its support of the deal.

Transportation and aviation experts, Drs. Carol Abel Lewis and Charles R. Glass of Texas Southern University (TSU) reviewed the independent economic impact studies commissioned by the Houston Airport System (HAS) as well as the opposing report prepared by United Airlines. It is their conclusion that the preponderance of the available evidence of impact on jobs, airfares and passenger volumes supports the recommendation to allow SWA to proceed with its proposal.

“While we believe the independent study the City commissioned was solidly based and built on other studies done around the United States and worldwide, I concluded that it would be helpful to this process to have a peer review of our own independent study and the ones presented by United and Southwest,” said Mayor Parker. “This peer review was done totally independent of the airlines involved and used the material provided by our own studies and the material provided by the Airlines.”

I have asked for a copy of or link to this report and will post it when I get it.

UPDATE: Here’s the TSU report. I promise, I’ll try to get Tiffany to analyze all of this.

The deal with Southwest

It’s official.

You are now free to fly internationally

In a news conference at Hobby Airport, Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday that Southwest Airlines will pay the estimated $100 million cost for a five-gate expansion at Hobby that would provide international flights.

“This is one of those deals where I don’t have to spend the next 20 minutes explaining what’s in the deal,” Parker said. “Southwest has agreed to pay for all the expenses associated with building the expansion. That’s it.”

Parker said she would present a memorandum of understanding about the deal later Wednesday to City Council.

“And I look forward to an affirmative vote from City Council next Wednesday when it’s formally on the council agenda,” she said.

There are apparently already enough votes on Council to pass this. Barring anything unexpected, it’s a done deal.

The mayor said the deal would not be financed by any city debt or facilities charges tacked onto the price of passenger tickets.

The airline will build five new gates according to city specifications and will get exclusive use of four of the new gates, Parker said.

“The fifth gate will be available to other carriers that choose to fly out of Hobby,” she said.

Once the improvements are made, the city will own them debt-free, Parker said.

The Chron story goes into more detail.

First, Southwest will not have to pay rent on the four gates or for the customs facility.

Southwest officials acknowledged Wednesday that exempting it from rent but assuming the debt payments is, essentially, a wash, though they said an apples-to-apples comparison was nearly impossible because there are so many ways to structure a deal.

Southwest also qualifies for an annual rebate of as much as $3.9 million based on the growth in passengers once the international addition opens. Southwest would get roughly $1.43 back for each additional passenger over the previous year’s total.

Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer and one of the negotiators on the deal, estimated that Southwest would have to increase its passenger total by roughly 50 percent in a single year for it to earn the maximum rebate.

A city study projects that the number of Hobby passengers would grow far less than that.

Southwest gets a key concession of near total control of the international section of the terminal at Hobby. While Southwest has touted the benefits of competition its entry into the Latin American market would bring, Southwest’s competition within Hobby will be limited to the flights that can squeeze out of one gate.

Southwest has plans for up to 25 daily international departures to destinations like Mexico and the Caribbean, which are places that can be reached in their fleet of 737s. They would start service in 2015.

The Mayor’s press release on this is here. One of the things it emphasizes is that Southwest will abide by all of the city’s minority and small business contracting requirements as well as the Hire Houston First policy. That drew a laudatory release from the Texas Organizing Project for the commitment to local hiring. I’m sure United will kick up a fuss about this, but everything I’ve seen indicates that public sentiment is very much on the side of Southwest and the Hobby expansion. All in all, I think it’s a pretty nice accomplishment for Mayor Parker, who as I said before will have some more positive things to talk about in her next election campaign than she did in the last one. What do you think about this deal?

Mayor to announce Hobby expansion deal

Here it comes.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker is planning to announce Wednesday morning that the city and Southwest Airlines have come to an agreement on how to finance a $100 million expansion of Hobby Airport to accommodate international flights, according to a City Hall source.

The agreement is subject to approval by City Council. The mayor said last week that if the city and Southwest could negotiate a memorandum of understanding, she intended to put Hobby expansion on the May 30 Council agenda.

No details of the agreement have yet been divulged. But several City Hall sources say Parker has scheduled a news conference at the Southwest ticket counter at Hobby Airport.

We’ll see what that amounts to. Southwest has been pretty aggressive about this, with CEO Gary Kelly sort of promising to pay for it all. Whatever the deal is, Council will have to vote on it, presumably next week. In the meantime, prior to this announcement the proposal picked up some endorsements:

The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau has endorsed expansion of Hobby Airport to accommodate a proposal by Southwest Airlines to start international flights in 2015. But that endorsement comes with a caveat.

In a released statement from Lindsey Brown, the organization’s director of marketing and PR, the Bureau announced:

As the official destination marketing organization for Houston and our region, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau supports expanding international air service at William P. Hobby Airport that encourages reasonable air service pricing. We have historically supported the expansion of Houston air service and we believe it is good for our customers and the citizens of Houston/Harris County. International meetings and tourism are an essential part of our core mission. The case for allowing international travel through Hobby Airport is a strong one, but that move should not significantly diminish existing international traffic at Bush Intercontinental Airport. We encourage the City of Houston to determine what actions will provide the best service and competitive fares for the traveling public and the greatest benefit to the Houston hospitality community.

Also on Friday, the Greater Houston Partnership made official its position in support of Hobby expansion. Its board of directors voted to approve a resolution previously supported by both its Executive Committee and its Business Issues Committee.

We’ll know more in a little while. At this point, I will be surprised if this doesn’t get done.

Paying for Hobby expansion

At last week’s Council hearing on the proposed expansion of Hobby Airport, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly made the statement that if the proposal were to be accepted, Southwest would pay for the $100 million project. The Chron looks at what this means.

Because the Houston Airport System is an enterprise fund separate from the rest of city government, its budget comes from landing fees and ticket surcharges, not from tax dollars that pay the salaries of police officers and firefighters.

Kelly’s declaration does not mean Southwest is offering to build the facilities at its own cost, however. There is no financing proposal from the airline yet. Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz told City Council last month that putting an extra $1.50 surcharge on the ticket of every passenger who takes off from Hobby would pay for the expansion. It is called a passenger facility charge, and it is money Houston’s publicly owned airports and others across the country collect from airlines to build runways, gates, people movers and concourses.

The fee would be paid not only by Southwest’s passengers, but those of American, Delta, and JetBlue, which also fly from Hobby. So, although Southwest accounts for roughly 87 percent of Hobby’s passengers, other airlines would be chipping in under the surcharge model. American and Delta declined comment. JetBlue issued a statement in support of Hobby expansion, but did not comment specifically on the prospect of increasing the per-ticket fee from $3 to $4.50.

The collected surcharges are not the airlines’ money to spend as they please. The fees must be kept in a segregated account and turned over to the airport system, which decides how to spend it.


United contrasts an expansion of Hobby paid for entirely with ticket fees with United’s approach of paying from its own pocket for a massive expansion of Terminal B at Bush. The deal signed last year calls for United to put up $686 million while the city ponies up $264 million it raises from passenger facility fees, which remain at $3 a head at Bush, and which are paid by 17 airlines. United has “skin in the game” at Bush, a company spokeswoman said, whereas if Hobby expansion is funded by passenger fees, Southwest does not.

On the other hand, United gained a financial windfall at Terminal B by acquiring its exclusive use. It even controls the concessions. The facilities at Hobby would be shared by any carrier that wants to compete with Southwest there. And passenger fees, not United, are paying for Bush’s Federal Inspection Services facility.

It was less than a year ago that Council approved the deal to refurbish and expand Terminal B at IAH. That deal included United getting the lowest gate fees of any airline at IAH, as well as 90% of concession revenue, both of which will go a long way towards taking the sting out of the money that United is putting up for the construction. United is on the hook for Phase One of this project, but can back out of Phases Two and Three; they have to make a decision about that in 2017. At the time this was being debated, the Service Employees International Union was arguing that United got a sweetheart deal from the city. Ah, memories.

This doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not the Southwest proposal is worthwhile in and of itself, or with whether accepting that proposal will lead to millions of jobs and ponies for everyone or a plague of locusts and seven years’ bad luck. It’s just to note that United hasn’t exactly been treated shabbily by the city. The amount of fuss they’ve kicked up about this is out of proportion to the small number of international flights that would result from Hobby being expanded.

Two cities, one argument about airports

Turns out Houston isn’t the only city squabbling with United Airlines about airport expansions. There’s a similar fight going on in Chicago.

O'Hare International Airport

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has gotten tough with the teachers union and muscled the City Council. But will he mess with somebody his own size?

Mr. Emanuel is at odds with airline boss Jeff Smisek over expansion of O’Hare International Airport. The CEO of United Continental Holdings Inc. jabbed at Mr. Emanuel recently, saying there’s no need to finish the multibillion-dollar project launched seven years ago.

The new mayor shot back with a demand to start talks now on the final phase of the expansion. The deadline for starting those negotiations isn’t until next March.


Mr. Emanuel can’t afford to let O’Hare fall behind rival airports. Mr. Smisek, on the other hand, has a different agenda. Unlike airline execs of the past, whose expansionist strategies dovetailed with the city’s desire for an ever-bigger O’Hare, he’s focused on the bottom line. He aims to boost profits by reducing capacity and competition in the airline industry, which has a long history of big spending, bloody fare wars and monumental losses. His merger of Houston-based Continental Airlines Inc. and Chicago’s UAL Corp. advanced those aims while creating an airline with unprecedented market power, the largest in the industry.

Proceeding with the final phase of the O’Hare expansion would undercut Mr. Smisek’s agenda, adding capacity that could allow new airlines into the airport, where United and AMR Corp.’s American Airlines now control 80 percent of the flights. Their stranglehold makes it hard for newcomers to get into O’Hare and maybe offer lower fares. It also means that United and American pay most of the cost of any expansion projects at O’Hare, giving them clout in construction negotiations.

The terms of the debate are different in Chicago, but the bottom line is the same. What’s best for the city may not be best for United Airlines, and vice versa. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about a large company with near-monopoly control in a given market doing whatever it can to keep competition out. What is remarkable is that the argument to allow such competition would somehow be damaging to consumers is given any credibility.

Which brings me to Tuesday’s Council session, in which United and Southwest made their case before a joint meeting of the Budget & Fiscal Affairs and Transportation, Technology & Infrastructure committees.

CEO Gary Kelly spoke for Southwest. He framed the debate in his company’s David-and-Goliath narrative of the scrappy low-cost carrier trying to crack a market dominated by the big boys.

Kelly opened with, “It is déjà vu.” Southwest had to fight just to keep from being killed in its crib by legacy carriers that schemed and litigated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to keep the airline from starting up, by Kelly’s version of history.

“That group included Continental Airlines,” Kelly said, the hometown carrier that merged with United in 2010. “It was a cynical move.”

In 1971, Southwest sought to reopen Hobby, which had closed two years earlier when Houston Intercontinental Airport opened.

“Then, as now, the legacy carriers went ballistic,” Kelly said, “… insisting that reopening Hobby would cause irreparable damage to Intercontinental.”


[United] delivered PowerPoint slides with statistics on how over the past 19 years Southwest has increased its fares at a faster rate than the legacy carriers have and juxtaposed the city’s projection of a Houston-Bogota flight for $133 on Southwest with the airline’s recent advertised rate of $160 just to get from Chicago to Oklahoma City.

John Gebo, United’s senior vice president of financial planning, even contested Southwest’s central contention that its entry into Houston’s international travel market will lower fares:

“There are cases where Southwest’s fares are lower. There are cases where they’re higher. It is a fallacy that Southwest’s fares are always lower.”

They also focused on the future instead of history. A council vote to expand Hobby, they said, would prompt them to reconsider a $700 million investment they have planned at Bush’s Terminal B. United broke ground on the project in January, unaware that later that same day Kelly would be meeting with Mayor Annise Parker to discuss Hobby expansion.

Let me refer you back to the two posts in which my wife Tiffany Tyler analyzed Southwest’s proposal and the claims United was making at the time, which seem to have evolved somewhat. I understand United’s fear of this proposal. I understand their threats regarding Terminal B at IAH, though given the growth projections for IAH and the fact that they want to close down the former Continental hub in Cleveland it’s hard for me to take those threats too seriously – where else are they going to go? Unlike Southwest, which says it will go to San Antonio for their Latin American and Caribbean business if Hobby is not available to them, they’re pretty much locked in. What I don’t understand is how having more competition, even if it’s just for a handful of Latin American routes, can be bad for travelers. It makes no sense to me, and according to his press release it makes no sense to CM Andrew Burks, either. I hope in the end it makes no sense to the rest of Council.

“Reasonable accommodation”

According to a legal opinion provided by the City Attorney’s office, Houston must provide “reasonable accommodation” to Southwest Airlines for its proposal to offer international flights at Hobby Airport.

In a memo accompanying the legal opinion, City Attorney David Feldman wrote that “consideration of such economic issues for the community cannot be controlling; the City’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to Southwest is paramount, irrespective of such issues.” In other words, if Council finds Southwest’s request reasonable it cannot reject it based on economic projections.

If the Federal Aviation Administration finds that the city is not complying with its obligations, it could suspend millions of dollars in airport improvement program grant funds and disqualify Houston from receiving future grants, according to a legal opinion prepared for the city by attorney Peter Kirsch of Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, a firm based in Denver and Washington, D.C., that specializes in aviation law.

Tuesday’s council hearing and two neighborhood meetings in the next week are part of the process the city will use to determine whether Southwest’s request is reasonable, said Janice Evans, spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker. The plan calls for a $1.50 fee increase on every Hobby traveler’s ticket to cover the costs of construction for the airport’s expansion.

Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz, who last month formally recommended the city support Southwest’s plan, said of the legal opinion, “It’s what I’ve been saying since Day One.”

The city could reject a proposal for Hobby to go global only if the airport did not have the capacity to accommodate international flights, if noise or other environmental concerns could not be overcome or if public safety were threatened, Diaz said. None of those conditions apply in the case of Southwest’s plan, Diaz said.

You can see a copy of Feldman’s memo here and a copy of the legal analysis here. The summary and conclusions are enough to give you the big picture, but do check out the last section, entitled “Consequences for violating legal obligations” for an idea of what could happen if the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t care for the city’s actions. United disagrees with this analysis, and that says to me that one way or another this is going to end up in court, but if this analysis is accurate that may not be the city’s biggest risk factor here.

Council had a joint meeting of the Budget & Fiscal Affairs and Transportation, Technology & Infrastructure committees yesterday at City Hall at which Feldman and both airlines made presentations. There will two be public hearings on this topic as well. The first is tonight, May 9, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the DoubleTree Hotel, 15747 JFK Blvd. The second is scheduled for Tuesday, May 15, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Houston Marriott South, 9100 Gulf Freeway. The Texas Organizing Project spent some time visiting residents in the Hobby area to ask them about their thoughts and concerns, and had its own public meeting with 100 of those residents to discuss this on Sunday. According to a letter they sent to Mayor Parker yesterday, there was strong support among those who attended their meeting for the Hobby expansion. Here’s your chance to make your voice heard, so attend one of these meetings if you have something to say about this.

United’s study predicts doom and disaster if Hobby expands

Well, what did you expect it to say?

You are NOT free to move around the country

Expanding Hobby Airport to allow for international flights will cost the Houston area 3,700 jobs and $295 million in economic activity, according to a study released by United Airlines Thursday afternoon.

United’s conclusions contrast starkly with the projections of a study commissioned by the Houston Airport System that an international Hobby would create 10,000 jobs and inject $1.6 billion into the local economy annually.


The United study attempts to dissect the city study by challenging several assumptions, including what United considers unrealistically low fares on new routes. Much has been made of the city study’s finding that fares to Bogota would decrease from $739 to $133. Although it concedes the average fare would decrease, United finds that the city study overstates current fares and understates the projected fares.

Southwest and the city study assert that new low-fare routes would increase passengers at both airports.

“Competition is always good, but there is already plenty of competition at Bush where it can take advantage of the enormous economies of scale associated with a large hub,” said Barton Smith, one of the United study’s authors and professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston. “Diminishing the volume of connecting flights through Bush could be very damaging. The HAS study finding that Southwest Airlines proposal would actually increase trips through Bush is just sheer nonsense.”

You can find United’s study here and a summary of its findings here. I guess United’s claim of 1300 lost jobs wasn’t sexy enough. This was posted late yesterday and I have not had the time to give it a read-through, but clearly United’s economists and whoever did the HAS study were operating under two completely different sets of assumptions. One or both of them must be wrong. I still think Darren Bush wimped out by not offering an actual opinion on this matter, but his advice to Council to “trust no one” sure seems apt. Let’s have one more study to break the tie!

The United study came out as the Greater Houston Partnership formally endorsed Hobby expansion.

“We want two vibrant airports and the benefits that go along with it: more jobs, more travelers and a competitive advantage for our city,” Greater Houston Partnership chairman Tony Chase said in a statement after a unanimous vote by one of the group’s 60 committees.


Partnership president Jeff Moseley said in the Wednesday statement that the organization “carefully deliberated on how increased competition changes the landscape within airport systems.”

More on that here and here. I’ll leave the wisecracks about who put these words in their mouth as an exercise for the reader. So, is anyone convinced by United’s study? Let me know in the comments.

Hobby expansion, for and neutral

The Chron had an interesting point/not-quite-counterpoint about the Hobby expansion proposal on its Sunday op-ed pages. The pro-Hobby expansion piece by Ed Wulfe was mostly rah-rah stuff and didn’t bring anything new to the debate. The other piece, by Darren Bush, was interesting mostly in that it wasn’t an actual counterpoint to Wulfe’s argument.

My view is that City Council should proceed with extreme caution and seek its own independent study to navigate carefully between the Scylla of Pollyannaish hopes and the Charybdis of doom and gloom.

It is no wonder then that the City Council is presented with two pictures. The first, favoring Southwest’s position, promises pie in the sky and the sweet bye and bye. Specifically, the independent estimate prepared for the Houston Airport System makes some lofty assumptions, including a $133 one-way fare from Hobby to Bogota. Other projected benefits of “freeing Hobby” include the creation of 10,000 more jobs, an overall economic impact of $1.6 billion and an increase in passenger traffic to both airports.

United’s story is far less rosy. It has suggested that the move would cause it to cut 1,300 jobs and reduce service. It also claims that the Houston Airport System study is “fundamentally flawed” in its assumptions about the economic effect of international service at Hobby. Finally, United worries that the increased customs presence at Hobby would hurt an already understaffed customs presence at Intercontinental.

City Council: Whom do you trust? My advice to you given the radically different viewpoints is the same as that given in that 1990s hit, “The X-Files:” Trust no one.

Bush recommended Council commission its own study instead. Which I guess is reasonable advice, though it could wind up being moot if Southwest gets impatient and decides to pursue opportunities in San Antonio or Orange County or wherever. It also feels rather like a copout by a guy whose byline says he is “a professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center who has testified before U.S. House and Senate Judiciary Committees on numerous airline matters”. I mean, the HAS study is on the web, along with other related documents. It’s not very long, though it is somewhat technical. I’ve read through it, and while I’m hardly qualified to give testimony on airline matters, I thought I grasped its main points, and it seemed sensible to me. Wouldn’t it have been nice if someone with actual expertise and no skin in the game had offered his own expert opinion on it? If he had access to United’s study, which as far as I know is not publicly available, an expert evaluation of that would be useful to the debate as well. This, I’m not sure what use it is.

Now clearly Bush is skeptical to some degree of the HAS study, though his recitation of talking points doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t already heard. Maybe this is just his way of saying there’s nothing else to say about it. And maybe he just didn’t have enough space to go into whatever other reasons he may have had for discounting this study. All I’m saying is that it seems like a waste of an expert’s talents to have him write something that any non-expert could have done.

Here come the lobbyists

It’s getting real in the United versus Southwest fight.

This was one of the less impolite images I found on Google

Both sides have enlisted A-list lobbying teams. United’s includes Marty Stein, who until little more than a year ago was Mayor Annise Parker’s agenda director; former City Attorney Anthony Hall and Greater Houston Partnership Airports Task Force Chair Michelle Baden. Southwest has former City Councilwoman Graci Saenz, and Jeri Brooks, communications director for Parker’s 2009 campaign, lobbying at City Hall. State Rep. Garnet Coleman also is advising Southwest.

Darrin Hall, Parker’s deputy chief of staff, called it the largest and most intense lobbying effort he has ever seen in eight years at City Hall.

Then, there is the money. A Chronicle review of campaign contribution records dating back to 2007 turned up nearly $90,000 in donations to current council members, the mayor and the 2010 inaugural celebration by Continental’s employees political action committee, and past and present Continental/United executives. Parker alone has received $52,298 since the beginning of her last term as controller.

It’s not just money, explained Chris Bell, a former city councilman and former congressman.

“Politics is a relationship business and those relationships are built up over time,” he said. Continental built those relationships, not with just campaign cash, but by sponsoring and buying tables at local events, supporting arts organizations, lobbying and being out in the community.

Southwest, by contrast, doesn’t do campaign contributions. United built up all that good will as Continental, and going by public reaction at least it’s not clear how much of it has carried over. Of course, if you go by Council’s reaction you get a different picture; Mayor Parker, on the other hand, is more in line with public sentiment. It’s too early to say how this will play out, but I will say this: The best counterweight to lobbyists and campaign contributions is your own voice. If you have an opinion about this, whoever it favors or opposes, call your Council member, the five At Large members, and the Mayor and tell them what you think. Be brief, be clear, and be polite to whoever answers the phone. They do pay attention, and they keep track of how many of each type of call they get on an issue like this. Sending an actual piece of snail mail is as good as a call, sending an email is not as good but better than nothing. Unless you have your own lobbyist to do this work for you, it’s your best bet.

Council is skeptical of Hobby International

Not so clear skies for expanding Hobby Airport into an international terminal.

A consultant’s study that forecasts an economic boon for Houston if Hobby is made into an international airport came under fire from city council members Monday as “biased” and “custom-made just to satisfy the demand of Southwest” Airlines, which is asking the city for permission to build a $100 million Customs facility and five-gate expansion at Hobby.

In a three-hour grilling of Houston Airports Director Mario Diaz, council members complained that the numbers in the study strained credulity, that they were kept in the dark about Southwest’s pitch for at least eight months, that airport officials have been condescending and that council and others should have been asked for input before Diaz recommended approval of the Hobby expansion.

According to the study, an international Hobby would lead to the creation of 10,000 jobs and inject $1.6 billion annually into the Houston area economy, as well as lower air fares. Comments from the general public have been overwhelmingly in support of Southwest’s plan to start flying to Mexico and the Caribbean.

The study is here; it and other supporting documents can be found here. I’ve skimmed the study but have not given it a full read yet.

“What may be the largest issue perhaps of the century, you all have blown it in my view,” Councilman C.O. Bradford told Diaz. “This rollout simply has been a complete disaster. I mean lack of transparency, arbitrary time lines, total disregard, disrespect for council. It’s just unconscionable.”

Councilman Al Hoang said, “I feel that this report is already biased, it’s already custom-made just to satisfy the demand of Southwest.”


Councilman Andrew Burks questioned the numbers in the report and singled out a projected fare of $133 to Bogota.

“You can’t even fly from Houston to Lubbock on Southwest for $133,” Burks said. “I really want to just throw this proposal out the window because, right now, when I see numbers that can’t match, it just don’t work for me.”

I can’t address Council members’ complaints that they have been disrespected, but from what I have seen of the study it seems pretty sensible to me. The case for international flights at Hobby is straightforward. There’s currently almost no competition for the market to Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Hobby is well suited to provide low cost carrier flights to that market, and Houston is about as ideal a population center for those flights as you could want. Several other cities have more than one international terminal, and recent history shows that not only can that work, the original carrier winds up increasing service as well. (See also page 18 of the study.) Unlike United, Southwest has other options for its international gateway if Houston passes; Orange County’s John Wayne Airport has a new Federal Inspection Service and would be a good alternative for Southwest.

Like I’ve said, I’m not the expert on this in the family – I’m working on getting her to contribute to this topic once more. I can’t speak to the specific objections Council members have raised. Perhaps the topline numbers – ten thousand jobs! $1.5 billion in economic activity! – are overstated. But honestly, does anyone believe that Houston fliers would not benefit from the increased competition? I don’t get it. I hope this was just Council doing its due diligence and not rejecting out of hand what looks like a good deal to me.

Houston Airport System sides with Southwest

Hot out of the inbox:

In a memorandum to Mayor Annise Parker, Houston Director of Aviation Mario Diaz recommends the City of Houston work with Southwest Airlines (Southwest) to expand the federal inspection services (FIS) facility at William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) to support scheduled commercial international service.

“I have concluded given Southwest’s existing and sizeable domestic network operation at Hobby, it would not be reasonable to require the airline to relocate to Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), or even conduct split operations – domestic service at Hobby and international service at Intercontinental,” said Diaz. “Therefore, it’s my recommendation we support Southwest’s request to begin the process of obtaining the necessary approvals to initiate international service at Hobby.”

Houston Airports commissioned two independent studies to evaluate the economic impact on the City of Houston from international flights operated by Southwest. Those studies, by two acknowledged experts in the aviation industry, found that international air service at HOU is projected to generate an additional 1.5 million passengers to, from and through Houston annually, creating more than 10,000 jobs and generating an annual economic impact of more than $1.6 billion.

In addition, the studies determined increased competition will result in an expanded market for all airlines that serve Houston. The findings note other metropolitan areas with more than one international airport – South Florida, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York/New Jersey – have seen expanded service, particularly where low-cost carriers like Southwest helped spur competition.

“By adding new international air service at Hobby, it creates competition in the Houston-Latin America market, leading to lower airfares and more travel options for the public,” concludes Diaz.

Mayor Parker is reviewing the study and seeking input from stakeholders before deciding whether to accept Mr. Diaz’ recommendation and seek City Council approval to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding to allow Southwest to pursue the necessary federal approvals for international flights at HOU.

During the week of April 16, Mr. Diaz will present his recommendation to a joint meeting of Houston City Council’s budget and fiscal affairs and transportation, technology and infrastructure committees as well as to the Greater Houston Partnership’s transportation committee.

You can go to to see all of the supporting documents. Here’s Mayor Parker’s statement:

“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 airline.”

Mayor Parker noted that the City is only deciding whether to support Southwest’s proposal to expand gate space at Hobby. The authority for deciding whether international service will be allowed at Hobby rests with the federal government.

Here’s the Chron story. I haven’t seen a statement from either United or Southwest yet; the Texas Organizing Project put out another statement urging “the Mayor and City Council to listen to the people that live and work around the airport”. The studies are over, so let the politics begin.

Today’s the day for the airport report

Today’s the day when we get that report from Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz that makes a recommendation to Mayor Parker and City Council about whether or not to expand Hobby Airport to include international flights. We will also get those two economic studies the city paid for to quantify the effect of such a decision. As we know, Southwest says greenlighting the expansion will be an economic jobs-creating boon for Houston, while United says just the opposite. In a Friday editorial, the Chron leans in Southwest’s direction.

Our call on this issue proceeds from the answer to a straightforward question: What is best for Houstonians and their city’s future? That is the question we expect to be uppermost in Houston City Council members’ minds as they deliberate this matter – well ahead of small-bore political considerations such as which party has ponied up how many dollars in campaign contributions or fund-raisers and the like. This is an issue with large regional implications and should be so addressed by council and Mayor Annise Parker. There are no home teams to favor in this.

As a general proposition, we believe the skies over Houston are big enough for both of these airlines to grow and prosper. And we believe that the future of this city and region is even bigger than the wild blue yonder they both call home.

That inclines us to favor welcoming Southwest’s entrepreneurial plan to expand Hobby at its own expense.

It’s hard for me to see how that’s not the right call. United’s argument largely boils down to a claim that you can only expand international travel at IAH, which in addition to being intuitively questionable also fails to hold up under a closer look at the numbers. To that effect, I presented another analysis of the situation by my wife, Tiffany Tyler. I’m reprinting that here today, partly because it was at the end of a long post on Friday and people may not have gotten to it and partly so I can link to her LinkedIn profile so you can get some idea of what her professional creds are. Here it is again:

First, thanks to all who responded favorably to my previous guest post. And yes, it’s been more than a weekend since I promised to write a follow-up. Unlike my spouse, I’m not conditioned to getting up at 5 am daily to create blog content, so it took me a while to work this in.

I’ve been reading with interest the “debate” around whether or not creating an international terminal at Hobby would be dilutive to the US Customs presence at Intercontinental. I’ve seen numerous comments from people saying things like, “the lines are too long at IAH as it is, this will only make it worse! They’ll take agents away!”

This got me thinking about the real numbers involved in the lines at International arrivals. Basically, it’s a function of how many people are getting off the plane at once. A busy airport like IAH has multiple flights coming in at the same time, especially when long haul flights from Europe and Asia arrive. An international terminal at Hobby would, at least in the beginning, have a much smaller number of flights and no 747s dumping 450 people at a time on Customs and Border Protection. Do the math:

The proposed Hobby scenario is 25 flights a day at 5 gates. The average capacity of a 737 in the Southwest fleet is 137 people. Southwest flies ONLY 737s. Even if they added the biggest, baddest 737 out there to give themselves greater range or capacity, they will top out at about 180 passengers. So 25 flights a day, spread over 10 hours – we’ll be generous and say 3 flights an hour, then round up capacity and say 500 people an hour through customs at Hobby, closer to 600 if they go with new 737-900ERs. This number is too large, in any real sense, but keep it in mind as we continue our mental math.

Compare that to IAH, where United and all of the other international carriers land something like at least twice that number of flights an hour (peak times when long haul flights come in from Europe or Asia) with an average capacity of a 747 or a 777 at 450 passengers PER PLANE. Look at the data, which I have taken straight from the Customs and Border Protection website, which can generate this handy table for any date range you select. This one is for 1 January 2011 to 1 January 2012.

So at peak times, Border Protection sees an average of 1100 or more people an hour through IAH. That makes our 500 passengers an hour through Hobby seem crazy-big. But stay with me. The data from CBP can’t be cut by day of the week, so I can’t tell if it’s appreciably worse on certain days. I’ve been on enough overnight flights to be leery of the low averages between 8 and 10 am, for instance. If you look at just 2 of the arrival schedules for cities in question with the proposed Southwest expansion, Mexico City and Cancun, as pulled from the handy schedule tool at

You can see that United doesn’t bring in more than one 737 from either departure city before noon (at least on a Wednesday, the day I pulled the data). The majority of the flights come in during those peak average hours on the CBP chart. So it’s unclear to me that taking some passengers OUT of those IAH averages would be a bad thing. Given that the IAH Master Plan for 2011 (the last one available on their website) is estimating a 3.9% annual growth rate in international travel alone between now and 2015, and diversion of traffic from Cleveland when United (probably) draws down that hub in favor of Chicago, it seems to me there is still PLENTY of growth going on at IAH to sustain demand for international flights, even if you add a potential 500 passengers an hour that could go through Hobby instead.

The advantage I’d see for potential international travelers at Hobby, and frankly for CBP as well, is that at least in the short run, Southwest would be the only international carrier at Hobby, and for that length of time, the average number of passengers coming through per hour would be highly predictable and consistent. That would make staffing easy to model, and certainly have a smaller swing from valley to peak than they have at IAH. As a traveler, I’m having a hard time seeing a downside with this.

The funding mechanism for Customs agents has always seemed opaque to me. On the one hand, United is claiming that IAH is already understaffed and opening Hobby would take agents away form IAH. This presumes the number of customs agents in a city airport system is a zero sum game. Of course United also contended that they didn’t have an issue with Southwest flying internationally as long as they do it out of IAH, which as I’ve shown above is absolutely silly in terms of wait times for the passengers. If they could add more agents to IAH to handle that added traffic, why couldn’t they add agents at a new airport, making passengers at IAH no worse off, and possibly with an improved option for lower fares and reduced customs wait times at Hobby relative to IAH?

This all presumes that new aircraft types don’t drastically change the throughput of arrivals in the IAH customs hall independent of anything Southwest might or might not do, of course. Surely United wouldn’t be planning to add more folks to what is already an overcrowded CBP system, right? That’s what they’re trying to protect us all from! And yet, look at the data. According to Boeing’s order book, the old Continental ordered 25 787s and United ordered 25. It’s true that I can’t tell where these planes are INTENDED to go in the United Route system, or even if those 50 orders are still “firm” in Boeing’s books, but think about it for a few minutes. This aircraft is slightly larger than the 737 (210-290 passengers, depending on configuration), with a range suited for flights between, say Houston and Delhi, India. Imagine the customs issue at IAH when you add 75 extra people per flight.

But you might be more concerned about the Airbus order book. The A380 holds 525 passengers. Imagine IAH at peak hours with 525 people on each of the BA, Air France and Emirates flights and not the 450 currently on a 747. You won’t have to wait long to see what it will feel like. Lufthansa is bringing the A380 to IAH beginning this August, and that Frankfurt flight lands at about 2 pm, right before a number of those United flights from Mexico.

Color me skeptical about United’s position generally. They may lose some customers, and cut some flights, in response to Southwest opening international service. But even with the newest, longest range 737s, it’s still a 737. And that “fleet commonality” is a huge part of what makes Southwest able to do what they do to control costs. Trust me here, I wrote a doctoral thesis on it. For United, as for American and AeroMexico, the overall risk of passenger loss will go up over time as Southwest expands their schedule past the currently proposed 5 city pairs. But those airlines, with their diversified fleets and deeper, longer route structures (at least for the US-based carriers), will still have plenty of places to go that Southwest can’t get to in a 737, and passengers want to go those places. I find the Customs and Border Protection argument disingenuous, given the pressures already in the customs hall and the growth projections that are already part of the IAH Master Plan and the fleet growth plan of United, insofar as I can guess what it is from the Boeing order book.

It’s the customers who have the most to gain from a Hobby expansion gateway. And as a customer, I’ll bet on Southwest working in my interest before I’ll bet on the “new” United.

Thanks again to Tiffany Tyler for that in depth analysis. And now we wait to see what Mario Diaz has to say.