As the first Southwest Airlines flight departed for Cancun early Thursday morning from the new international concourse at William P. Hobby Airport with a water cannon salute, its vice president for airline affairs Bob Montgomery declared, "Hobby has been freed."
At the opening ceremonies for the sparkling new $156 million five-gate terminal, city officials and airline workers were in high spirits, while gigging United Airlines, Houston's one-time hometown airline (formerly Continental) that opposed the project.
As Southwest workers wore red T-shirts emblazoned with "Houston You Have an Option," Montgomery called Southwest "Houston's hometown airline" since it has flown from Hobby since its inception in 1971 while Southwest CEO Gary Kelly noted that the airline's mission is to bring down international fares.
"It didn't take long for the leaders of the city of Houston to see that when the fares from Chicago to Mexico and the Caribbean were lower than the fares from Houston to the same places, despite it being half the distance and by the same airline, they knew they had a problem and the competition was lacking," Kelly said.
"We had a little pushback from another airline but it all worked out and today is proof that good ideas well executed will pay off," Parker agreed during her remarks.
Parker noted that, in addition to flying to leisure destinations south of the border, Southwest also files to commercial hubs like Mexico City. "This is not just about the leisure traveler but about the business traveler," she said. "We expect picking up 1 million additional passengers a year out of this terminal. That is huge for the future of Houston."
And, she added, "In a city where almost 1 in 4 Houstonians is foreign-born, these flights connect families. These flights connect neighbors. When we were pitching this, we were talking about how this is going to replace 12, 14, 15-hour bus rides into the interior of Mexico."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said the new terminal is able to process as many as 800 arrivals an hour. Automatic Passport Control kiosks will expedite entry for U.S., Canadian and some international travelers. "Technology is a huge game changer," he said.
The new terminal also has a number of favorite Houston restaurants, including Pappasito's, Yia Yia Mary's and Chick-Fil-A, Peet's Coffee, Desigual and Brookstone stores and convenience stores featuring the CultureMap, Houston Chronicle and Southern Living logos. The CultureMap store also features large touch screens that display the latest stories.
Southwest now flies to Cancún, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta and San Jose del Cabo/Los Cabos in Mexico, San Jose, Costa Rica, and Belize City from Hobby. Daily service to Liberia, Costa Rica, and Montego Bay, Jamaica, begins November 1.
"This is just a small step. We're growing our international product,"Montgomery said. "There's much more to come, so stay tuned."
Parker said she's ready to take a flight, but won't have time for a vacation until her term ends as the end of the year. "But I understand there is a fare sale going on, so I'm going to buy my ticket today," she told CultureMap.