By John Egan

To help celebrate its international expansion at Houston's William P. Hobby Airport, Southwest Airlines will hold its annual shareholders meeting May 13 in Houston - the first time it's ever been staged outside Southwest's home city of Dallas.

Given that Southwest offers up to 159 departures a day to 48 cities from Hobby (HOU) and employs more than 3,300 people in the Bayou City, "it is easy to see that Houston holds a big place in our heart," airline spokesman Brad Hawkins said.

Hobby is the fifth busiest airport across Southwest's network of more than 90 airports in six countries.

"Southwest Airlines has deep roots in Houston," Hawkins said. "As one of our original ‘Texas Triangle' cities, we've served Houston since the beginning and we've grown through the decades."

Southwest began serving the three "Texas Triangle" cities - Houston, Dallas and San Antonio - in 1971. Forty-four years later, Southwest is experiencing tremendous growth in Houston.

In early March, a Southwest flight from the island nation of Aruba landed at Hobby. The travelers on board made history, becoming the first international passengers at Hobby since the 1960s.

"The Aruba flight currently operates weekly on Saturdays and is just the beginning of a very big 2015 for our Houston employees and customers, with an additional six destinations across three countries coming online at Houston Hobby later this year," Hawkins said.

Those six destinations are Cancun, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta and San Jose del Cabo/Los Cabos, Mexico; San Jose, Costa Rica; and Belize City, Belize. Gary Kelly, chairman, president and CEO of Southwest, says service to Mexico will be the "cornerstone" of the airline's international operations at Hobby.

"The importance of strong connectivity with Latin America and the Caribbean cannot be overstated in Houston, and these flights will undoubtedly strengthen those business and cultural ties," Houston Aviation Director Mario C. Diaz said.

The new flights will originate from Hobby's new $156 million, five-gate international terminal, which is set to open in October. The 280,000-square-foot terminal is a partnership between Southwest and the City of Houston. Hawkins said Southwest saw a "great opportunity" to introduce international service in Houston, where customers "are beholden to very high airfares for international travel."

A study by the Houston Airport System estimates the international terminal at Hobby will add 10,000 jobs and generate an annual economic impact of $1.6 billion. The study also forecasts the terminal will attract another 1.6 million travelers each year.

"With the planned addition of more international routes this coming year, the number of departures and destinations will increase significantly," Hawkins said. "We look forward to sharing more details about those routes closer to the opening of the new international terminal."

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