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.

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