By: Jack Harty
Last month, Southwest Airlines flight 2207 was a significant flight; it marked Southwest’s first flight between Aruba and Houston as well as Southwest’s first international arrival into Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport.
44 years ago, Southwest commenced flights between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio with three Boeing 737s, and over the years, the airline has rapidly stretched its wings from coast to coast. Thanks to its acquisition of AirTran in 2010, Southwest is now able to start flying international flights to the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico.
Now that Southwest would have international access thanks to its AirTran acquisition, Southwest planned to launch international flights in and out of Houston, but the airline had to win over the city’s approval to build an international terminal at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport where it has built up a large presence. It was almost a war in Houston as Southwest and United as well as the north side and south side of Houston went back and forth to determine whether the city should allow Southwest to commence international flights.
Ultimately, Southwest won approval from the city of Houston to build the international terminal. The new $156 million, five-gate international concourse is still under construction. The new facility, expected to open October 15, 2015, will increase capacity for all airport functions and add a Federal Inspections Services (FIS) facility to streamline U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) screening and baggage processing for arriving international passengers.
I had the opportunity to join Southwest Airlines on its first international arrival into Houston on March 7, 2015 from Aruba. It was an exciting day for the airline, the City of Houston, and Aruba as there is a significant economic impact with Southwest now flying international flights and continuing to grow its presence outside the U.S.
Although the new five gate international terminal at Hobby is expected to open in Fall 2015, U.S. CBP pre-clearance–which provide U.S. border inspection in certain foreign countries including Aruba–helps make it possible for Southwest to start Saturday-only international flights in and out of Houston sooner to Aruba. With pre-clearance, customers are able to deplane in Houston without further CBP inspections into the domestic terminal, quickly claim baggage and depart the airport, or make seamless connections to more than 40 destinations Southwest serves from Hobby.
Many passengers were expecting 2207 to be an ordinary Southwest flight, but upon arriving at the gate, they would soon find out that they were about to join Southwest on a special occasion.
Several members of the media and Southwest employees arrived at the airport several hours early in order to attend a small ceremony with airline, airport, and city officials before the inaugural flight to Houston. Airport employees started decorating the gate area with hundreds of balloons the night before, and a catering company set up a table offering complimentary drinks and snacks. Near the podium, there was a cake in the shape of the island and had a Southwest plane (in cake form) on top of it.