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?
A study commissioned by the city forecast the creation of 10,000 jobs as Southwest rolls out international flights in 2015. As the number of international flights out of Hobby expands, the number of new jobs could reach 18,000, study authors say. Nearly 3,000 of them would be at Hobby, an additional 4,000 would result from the money passengers spend locally, and another 11,000 would sprout up as those dollars recirculate in the Houston region, the study says.
United Airlines, which opposes Hobby expansion, commissioned its own study and concluded that it would result in lost jobs. The city’s job numbers rely on three mistaken assumptions, United contends: unrealistically low air fares; overstated job creation at Hobby to support new flights; and that United would not move some of its planes out of Houston to more profitable locations.
A review of the two studies by a pair of Texas Southern University transportation studies faculty members, released Thursday by Mayor Annise Parker, concluded that the city study’s numbers on jobs are based on a model that “provides credibility” while United’s are “unverifiable.”
But even Parker, whose administration is championing the expansion, regards five-digit employment gains as too rosy and net job losses as too gloomy.
Instead of identifying where the jobs would be created when asked by news media or council members, Parker and Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz have steered away from the specifics of job forecasts and insisted that competition creates employment.
“I’m not going to get into a discussion of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Is it 10,000 jobs? Is it 5,000 jobs? Jobs are good for Houston, and this creates jobs,” Parker said when asked about the competing claims.
Help more than hurt?
Such a discussion, 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 is not good enough for Councilman Jerry Davis, whose District B includes Bush. A great many of his constituents cannot afford to fly, he said. He has asked city officials where the jobs will be created, and he said he has never received a satisfactory response.
“Right now, the only answer that I’ve received was 50 to 100 jobs directly related to Southwest within the next 5 to 10 years from Mr. (Southwest CEO Gary) Kelly,” said Davis, who adds that his constituents are afraid of losing their jobs.
The city study notes “beneficial impacts for the shopping and retail sector, the lodging and entertainment sector, and restaurants of all types,” as a result of Hobby expansion, but Davis dismissed that as “vague.”
Councilwoman Ellen Cohen plans to vote for expansion, but not because she’s convinced the job numbers in either study are correct. She came around Thursday after she studied the city’s deal with Southwest that calls for the airline to pay for the Hobby project.