Ken Hoffman unloads his biggest pet peeves about flying Southwest as the airline returns to IAH

Monday, April 12 marks the return of Southwest Airlines to Bush-Intercontinental Airport, where it all started a half-century ago for the world’s largest low-fare airline.

Although most travelers think of Hobby Airport on Houston’s south side as Southwest’s home turf, fun fact, the very first flight Southwest Airlines flight on June 18, 1971 left Dallas Love Airport and landed at Houston Intercontinental Airport, as our big airport up I-45 was known then.

The airport wasn’t renamed George Bush Intercontinental Airport until 1997. (Or, just call it IAH to save time buying tickets online.)

For now, Southwest will operate 15 total daily flights between Bush Intercontinental and five destinations: Dallas (five flights to Love Field), New Orleans (three flights), Chicago (two flights to Midway), Nashville (three flights), and Denver (two flights).

More cities may be added in the future as Southwest spreads its wings across the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

There will be hats and horns, speeches and a ribbon cutting April 12 to celebrate Southwest’s grand re-opening at Bush Intercontinental. The only thing missing will be free hot dogs, a local beauty pageant winner, and a bouncy house for the kids.

“We’ve been following the growth of population and business north of I-10 in Houston,” says Dave Harvey, vice president of Southwest Business. “We always knew there’d be a time when we would bring service back to Bush Intercontinental. It was just a question of when. This gives us access to a new set of customers and a new set of revenue opportunities. We feel these 15 daily flights to five markets are a great base to build from.”

“We have a great customer base at Hobby, and nothing is going to change there. We just want to extend our low fares and service to the north side.”

Prior to COVID-19 practically grounding the airline industry last year, Southwest operated 170 daily flights out of Hobby, the seventh busiest airport for Southwest with 60 unique non-stop destinations. Harvey said business is picking up for Southwest but still has a long way to go to reach pre-pandemic levels.

“We believe that Americans are getting their vaccinations and can’t wait to travel again. They’re making up for lost time by planning two, three and four trips already, and leisure travel is the biggest part of our business,” Harvey said.

Southwest is going through a growth spurt, moving into larger airports like Bush Intercontinental in Houston and O’Hare in Chicago in existing major markets, adding 17 new destinations since November, and last month purchasing 100 Max 7 jets from Boeing.

Southwest will have 60 fulltime employees stationed at Bush Intercontinental. The airline has 4,000 employees in Houston.

While I had a Southwest boss on the phone, I hit him with my two main gripes about air travel.

1. How come, no matter how many gates an airport has, more than 100 gates sometimes, my gate is at the very end of the terminal?

It happens all the time. I practically have to walk a mile past all those reasonably priced restaurants and newsstands (I have a Big Mac on layaway at IAH – three more payments and it’s mine).

Harvey said that Southwest will operate at Gate 3 in Terminal A at Bush Intercontinental. While it’s one gate, there will be three boarding doors leading to planes, so it will be like having three gates. Okay Southwest, you’re innocent this time.

2. How come when a plane lands ahead of schedule, the pilot will come on the speaker and say, “We’re going to have to sit here a little while because there’s another plane at our gate?”

I can look out the window and see plenty of empty gates. Can’t you be flexible and just use one of those empty gates?

Harvey said that rarely happens with a Southwest flight because Southwest has rapid turnarounds. Southwest planes land, unload and load passengers quickly because open boarding takes less time than assigned seating. Plus Southwest has a team that keeps track of planes sitting on a tarmac more than a couple of minutes and will find an empty gate for it.

“It’s just not a common complaint with our customers,” Harvey says. “Our planes make money for us when they’re in the air, not sitting on the ground.”

Now a tip of the hat to Southwest: They don’t mess around following COVID safety protocols. Passengers must wear a face mask and wear it properly — over their mouth and nose, unless they’re actively eating and drinking. And no nursing a small bag of peanuts or pretending you’re sleeping with your mask pulled low.

Wear the damn mask or we’ll see you on YouTube, buddy.

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