`The Airport Was an Island': Southwest Begins Its Houston Return

(Bloomberg) -- Southwest Airlines Co. resumed commercial service to Houston Saturday in the wake of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, landing its first passenger flight at William P. Hobby airport at about 12:35 p.m., according to tracking website FlightAware.com.

That puts Southwest behind United Continental Holdings Inc. and American Airlines Group Inc., which started limited service Thursday at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Since Aug. 24, a day before the record-breaking storm made landfall in Texas, the Dallas-based carrier has held sprawling, twice-daily emergency meetings. At the Friday morning session, which a Bloomberg reporter attended, staff discussed the status of aid for storm-affected employees, ferrying crew members to Houston from Dallas and Chicago and ensuring that enough fuel reaches airports even beyond Harvey’s path.

`The Airport Was an Island': Southwest Begins Its Houston Return

“It feels like something we can execute well, and like we have a good shot at being up to full strength next week,” Chief Operating Officer Michael Van de Ven said at the gathering, attended by about 40 people in the room and others by phone.

Southwest expects to run as many as 24 round-trip flights at Hobby airport on Houston’s south side on Saturday. It plans to fly 68 percent of its normal schedule at the city on Sunday and reach 100 percent on Sept. 9. International flights from the airport are slated to resume Sept. 4.

“This isn’t a headquarters-driven decision,” Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said in an interview. “It’s one that’s been collaborative. We thought that waiting until Saturday was the appropriate thing to do to mitigate the risk.”

Stranded Crews

The logistics are substantial. Harvey’s record-breaking rain stranded planes -- and crews -- in inconvenient locations. Southwest, which carries the most domestic passengers in the U.S., is using a handful of flights Friday and Saturday to transport Houston-based employees who had been unable to return home, and evacuate others from the Texas city.

Friday’s meeting included members of the airline’s disaster-relief temporary team, or DRTT (pronounced, DIRT). The agenda included hotel-room reservations, requests for charitable relief flights and washing ice-removal equipment after the storm. Attendees also discussed the status of each of Southwest’s 4,100 Houston-area employees, divided by work group.

Southwest has a sufficient near-term supply of jet kerosene. But the carrier is anxious about closed pipelines from Gulf Coast refineries and arranged for tanker trucks to carry fuel to Dallas.

The airline also is reminding workers to conserve fuel. Crews typically are advised to taxi on one engine instead of two and to reduce the use of auxiliary power units for lights and climate control when parked. Kelly said he was “absolutely” concerned about fuel availability. Southwest gets about one-third of its jet kerosene from Gulf Coast refineries.

90 Minutes

Workers and passengers were stranded at Hobby on Aug. 26 as Harvey pounded Houston. The airline had been operating at 50 percent of its schedule at the airport at the time and had planned to continue throughout the storm. But when Harvey dumped 9 inches of rain on the area in 90 minutes, all service stopped.

“We weren’t put to bed for the night yet,” Van de Ven said. “We still had that level of staffing at the airport: customer-service agents, ramp agents, operations agents, mechanics, provisioning and cargo agents. A lot of them got stuck there. That night, the airport was an island.”

The airline used five flights on Aug. 27 to move 486 customers and employees from Hobby to Dallas. Kelly estimated that about 100 employees stayed at Hobby.

Southwest still hasn’t been able to contact all of its Houston employees. It has arranged for million in employee-funded catastrophic relief for more than workers most affected by the hurricane.