HOUSTON — Steady growth — and what that means both for the future of the Houston Airport System and the City of Houston — was focus when Director of the Houston Airport System Mario Diaz delivered the State of the Airports 2016 address before a full house at the Omni Houston Galleria on Monday, March 21, 2016.
Calling the airport system “stronger today than it has ever been” during the 30-minute address before and estimated crowd of more than 700, Diaz cited record-setting passenger numbers at both George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport, the investment in major projects to accommodate that continued growth, the acknowledged financial stability of the organization, and the “unprecedented” level of global connectivity now available to travelers at Houston’s airports.
“I’m not only talking about the major continental markets around the globe,” Diaz said before citing the expansion of international service at Bush Intercontinental and the return of international service to Hobby Airport. “I’m talking about unprecedented in the fact that Houston is now one of a hand-full of select cities connected to every one of the six inhabited regions of our world.”
With a record total of more than 55 million passengers served at the two commercial airports in 2015 — an increase of almost four percent over the 2014 record-setting mark — Diaz noted the role vital projects played in continuing to attract foreign flag carriers to Houston, and will play in the future as both airports look to grow beyond the record-setting 10.7 million international passengers served in 2015.
“We are well on our way to building the platforms for future success,” Diaz said, “and we have strengthened the airport system’s financial position — all proof that the strategies we have followed and the products and services we have offered have been embraced by our passengers who are our primary customers.”
Return of international service at Hobby
While the growth of international travel at Bush Intercontinental continues, Diaz noted that the addition of the $156 million concourse at Hobby Airport — and bringing international service to that facility for the first time in nearly 50 years — is “absolutely vital to the future success of Houston.”
For the sixth straight year, Hobby Airport saw an increase in passenger traffic, eclipsing the 12 million mark for the first time. Over the course of the past decade, passenger totals at Hobby have increased by more than 50 percent, while the number of destinations available through nonstop flights has almost doubled, moving from about 30 to more than 60 cities.
The new concourse, and the return of international travel to Hobby Airport, is an essential component in that continued growth, Diaz said.
Opened in October 2015, a partnership with Southwest Airlines produced a 280,000-square-foot complex that includes a five-gate concourse, an expansive ticketing area equipped with modern technology and a Federal Inspection Station facility with modern customs technology. Add in $100 million in enabling projects, including a new 3,000 space parking garage and roadway, and Diaz said the “new facility not only expands the capacity and the capabilities found at Hobby Airport, but it also dramatically improves the overall customer experience.”
He noted, as well, that the expansion at Hobby Airport was “a powerful example of how the airport system can serve the Houston economy and its residents at the same time,” citing an estimated 10,000 jobs that will be created and a projected economic impact of more than $1.5 billion.
“These types of projects not only improve the travel experience for our passengers,” Diaz said. “They also improve the economic vitality of the entire region.”
Building on the growth at Bush Intercontinental
Citing both the increased passenger numbers — Bush Intercontinental saw nearly 43 million passengers in 2015, a record total for the facility — and a litany of carriers expanding international service available at the airport system’s flagship facility, Diaz noted that since 2005 international travel there has increased by 53 percent, growing from 6.9 million in 2005 to the record 10.6 million in 2015.
“These numbers have strengthened some pretty compelling arguments to airline executives from around the world,” Diaz said, “and it has translated into a wave of new nonstop service for Houston passengers.”
In 2015, Bush Intercontinental welcomed foreign flag carriers Volaris, All Nippon Airways, EVA Air, WestJet and Air New Zealand, as well as the addition of expanding service to Latin America and the Caribbean by United Airlines, Spirit Airlines and Vacation Express.
“Most recently, United filed with the Department of Transportation to provide direct service between Houston and Havana, Cuba,” Diaz said. “This connectivity is strongly supported by the city and the airport system, and will be welcomed by all citizens in the region.”
Noting that seat capacity on service between Houston and Asia has increased by 400 percent in a short time, Diaz also pointed out that the arrival of Air New Zealand makes Houston “the City of Houston is now the only city in the western hemisphere with nonstop flight service to all six inhabited continental regions. Only four other cities in the world can lay claim to that level of connectivity: Abu Dhabi and Dubai, both in the United Arab Emirates; Doha in Qatar; and Johannesburg in South Africa. That’s how much progress we’ve made in connecting the people, businesses, cultures and economies of the world to Houston.”
But, Diaz noted, that kind of growth also spurred the need to expand facilities at Bush Intercontinental, and that led to a valued partnership with United Airlines, breaking ground last year on a new Terminal C North concourse as part of the plans to build a new Mickey Leland International Terminal, which when completed will be more than 50 percent larger than the existing Terminal D and all 15 of its gates will be capable of accommodating wide-body aircraft.
“The new terminal will eventually stand as the global gateway portal that appropriately reflects Houston’s standing as a key nexus in the global business network, while at the same time home to the nation’s most diverse population,” Diaz said.
Diaz later noted, as well, that a proactive step in all of these projects was taken in 2015, with the establishment of the Houston Construction Education Collaborative to teach new skills to the potential construction workforce. This collaborative was created in partnership with key institutions of higher learning such as Houston Community College, the Lone Star College System and San Jacinto College.
Houston Spaceport plans becoming a reality
What began five years ago as a concept became a reality in June 2015, when Ellington Airport was approved for its commercial spaceport license by the Federal Aviation Administration. The license makes Ellington Airport a potential launch and landing site for suborbital, reusable launch vehicles, providing an “opportunity for Houston to play a leading role in the government’s pivot from a government lead to a commercially driven sub-orbital and low orbit space industry,” Diaz said.
“To put it another way, Houston Spaceport is no longer a concept; it is a hard reality,” Diaz said. “Over the last year we completed the airport master plan, and the first phase planning for the area on the southwest airport boundary where Houston Spaceport will be centered.”
Diaz said the plan identifies the location for safe fueling, the launch as well as landing of these new space vehicles. He noted that Phase 1 of the master plan will feature more than 800,000 square feet of office, design, light assembly, warehouse, distribution and commercial space.
Diaz noted the purchase of a 53,000 square-foot facility that will anchor the Phase I plans to develop an innovation incubator campus. The Aerospace Support Center in that building will offer startup and established companies access to high quality space in which to build concept prototypes and perform low volume assembly operations.
“Later this spring we anticipate coming to Council with a series of leases for space in this facility with companies we have attracted to Houston,” Diaz said.
Vital first steps were taken in 2015, Diaz said, by working with a number of committed partners on the project, including NASA, which agreed in 2015 to a five-year deal that officially clears the way for NASA team members to provide Spaceport employees with safety training, engineering capabilities, operations support and other services, and Sierra Nevada Space Systems, which was selected by NASA to take part in multiple re-supply missions to the International Space Station, beginning in 2019.
“Needless to say, this would be a huge step forward for the newly created Houston Spaceport,” Diaz said. “In the meantime, we’ll be moving forward with the final step of our plan and that is this: Let everyone in the industry know that Houston Spaceport is open for business and that we plan to compete aggressively in this sector.”
Focusing on service
While growth is important, Diaz noted that “personal touches” often go a long way in enhancing the travel experience for passengers, and that the airports are “constantly remind ourselves that the purpose behind all of our efforts is to enhance the overall experience enjoyed by our 55 million passengers and to adequately reflect Houston’s status as a vibrant, friendly and diverse global gateway city.”
Diaz said that expanded and enhanced concessions programs at both commercial airports will raise the level of service for customers, and noted multi-million dollar renovation program for the Marriott Hotel at Bush Intercontinental, as well as the new American Express Centurion lounge coming to Terminal D at the big airport in the near future.
Addressing the growing use of technology, Diaz noted the expanded numbers of self-serve kiosks available to assist passengers in making their way through the U.S. Customs declaration process, and that the airport system now features the second fastest Wi-fi signal found at any airport in the United States.
Aesthetically, the airports welcomed new art installations at both airports, including an expansive installation at Hobby Airport to complement the new concourse and facilities there, as well as the “Harmony In The Air” program that provides passengers at both Bush and Hobby airports a variety of live music that ranges from the elegance of a string quartet to the passionate sounds of a baroque guitar.
“We have made important strides in enhancing customer service, returning our assets to opening day fresh condition,” Diaz said.
While celebrating the recent growth, Diaz also noted the need to look to the future, citing plans to implement internal systems that track and monitor asset performance, develop passenger satisfaction tools, and continuing the airport system’s efforts to provide diversity in the work and opportunities it generates.
“We are particularly proud of the airport system’s accomplishment in minority and women business participation in concessions, construction projects and professional services agreements during 2015,” Diaz said, noting awards won for Diversity Champion of the Year and the Pinnacle Award given by the Houston Black Chamber of Commerce.
For 2016, Diaz said the airport system will “focus our efforts on rebuilding the terminal and roadway facilities at Intercontinental, while we shift gears at Ellington to accelerate the development of our spaceport.”
“We’ve enjoyed an incredible tailwind over the past six years and I believe we have taken advantage of every opportunity to position all three airports in the system to weather the economic clouds we have entered,” Diaz said. “We are committed to the mission to connect the people, businesses, cultures and economies of the world to Houston, and we will speed ahead to arrive at our vision to become a five-star global air service gateway where the magic of flight is celebrated.