Southwest Airlines will begin serving Bush Intercontinental Airport next year, the company announced Monday.

It’s a bold move for the Dallas-based airline, which is positioning itself to compete more aggressively in a time of diminished travel.

Southwest also said it would expand its footprint in Chicago, bringing service to Chicago O’Hare International. Southwest’s expansion in the two major cities comes as the pandemic continues to suppress travel, prompting sweeping furloughs and flight reductions from competing airlines.

The move will force United Airlines, the dominant carrier at IAH, to defend its position against Southwest, which dominates Hobby Airport to the south, Henry Harteveldt, an airline industry analyst, said. And, he added, the consumer wins when airlines compete.

“Houston’s about to see a bit of a dogfight — airline dogfight — that it hasn’t seen in more than 30 years,” he said.

Southwest previously flew out of IAH, but has flown its Houston trips exclusively out of Hobby since 2005, the company said. Southwest will retain Hobby as its primary Houston hub, said Andrew Watterson, its executive vice president and chief commercial officer.

Customers have long requested Southwest’s return to Houston’s northern airport, Watterson said, and “now that we have unused aircraft, it’s a good time to do that.”

“Rather than get rid of people and assets, we want to put them to new uses,” he said.

Because Southwest will redirect planes and employees from other airports, startup costs for the returned service to IAH are minimal, he said. The airline plans to fly complementary flights out of both airports, adding some of the trips that travelers see at Hobby to IAH gates.

“That allows people to mix and match the airports,” Watterson said, noting some people may live closer to IAH and work closer to Hobby, or vice versa, and want to plan return home via a different airport than where they took off.

Southwest will work with the Houston Airport System in the coming weeks to gain access to gates and ticket counters before it can begin scheduling flights and setting prices, Watterson said.

A spokesman for the Houston Airport System declined to comment beyond a statement posted to Twitter.

“Houston Airports supports and applauds this decision by Southwest Airlines to grow air service offerings in Houston during a time when air carriers are doing what they can to recover from the effects of the pandemic and once again reach a point of profitability,” Mario Diaz, Houston Airports’ director of aviation, said in the tweet.

Southwest employs 4,000 people in Houston, the company said.

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

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