Continued growth, industry accolades and a big anniversary on the horizon highlight State of the Airport 2018 address

A crowd of nearly 500 for the event hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership heard about the achievements of all three Houston Airport System facilities and the vision for the upcoming year and beyond

December 17, 2018

HOUSTON — A year filled with industry accolades and continued growth — as well as the promise the future holds heading into the 50th anniversary of the opening of George Bush Intercontinental Airport — was the focus when City of Houston Aviation Director Mario C. Diaz gave the annual State of the Airport address on Dec. 14, 2018.

A crowd of nearly 500 for the event hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership at the Hilton Americas downtown heard Diaz extol the achievements of all three Houston Airport System facilities — Bush Airport, William P. Hobby Airport and Ellington Airport — and the vision for the upcoming year and beyond.

“I can tell you today with full confidence that the state of the Houston Airport System is strong and growing stronger,” Diaz said. “And, if you listen to our passengers and industry experts, they agree.”

Highlighting the 4-star rating given Bush Airport in 2018 — its first 4-star rating by leading industry analyst Skytrax — and the fact that with Hobby Airport earning a 4-star rating for the third straight year, Houston is now the only city in the Western Hemisphere with two 4-star rated airports, Diaz lauded the efforts of the HAS family in achieving that rating, as well as high ratings from other industry analysts.

“These honors underscore the fact that service is our hallmark” Diaz said. “They are proof our approach and our commitment to excellence is working, and at a high level.”

Recognizing the passing of President George H.W. Bush — the namesake for the city’s largest airport — as well as continued growth in both passenger and cargo numbers, Diaz closed by focusing on the upcoming 50th anniversary of Bush Airport, which opened as Houston Intercontinental Airport in June 1969 and was renamed for the 41st president in 1997.

“Since 2010, when I first came to this great City and Houston Airports, I have been overwhelmed by the rich and illustrious history of Houston and of Bush Airport. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary for Bush – 50 years, and they have been golden,” Diaz said. “George Bush Intercontinental Airport first opened its doors in June 1969, and we are planning full-throttle to celebrate this golden anniversary in the coming months.”


Good afternoon and thank you Marc for that kind introduction.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Nothing great ever happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.” I couldn’t agree more – greatness is intentional, it is never accidental. Today, let me tell you the Houston’s airports are intent upon achieving greatness in the service we deliver to our passengers, and to the value we create for this City, for this region, and for our world as an international gateway.

So many here today are partnering with us on that quest. It’s not always easy, but the challenges of doing business in this burgeoning, diverse city only make us stronger, only make us better.

And why do we persevere? The airport system is the economic engine that drives the Houston economy. It is axiomatic that a good city can have within it a five-star airport, and yet it itself is not a five-star city. But in this global, connected, and interdependent economy, you simply cannot have a five-star city without a five-star airport.

Before we get started, I would like to thank our hosts Bob Harvey, President and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, Chairman Marcus Watts, and all board members of the Greater Houston Partnership.

I want particularly to thank our Mayor, the honorable Sylvester Turner, for his leadership and support. Recognitions are certainly in order — thank you to the distinguished members of the Houston City Council present today, along with Congressional delegates and staffers, our Consular Corps of Houston, and our Federal Agency partners, including Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Also, we appreciate our Airline partners with us here today, and truly value what they mean to our airports.

Thank you all for joining us.


George Herbert Walker Bush dreamed of a world where “a thousand points of light” would shine through the darkness and lead us all on to greater things.

Just two weeks ago, we lost possibly the brightest of those hopeful, helpful lights, when the 41st President of the United States — and the namesake of our city’s largest airport — quietly passed away at his Houston home at the age of 94.

We at the Houston Airports are honored to be inextricably bound to President Bush for more than two decades now, since Houston Intercontinental Airport was renamed George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 1997.

His commitment to duty took him to all four corners of the globe as diplomat, CIA Director, Vice President, and President. His aviator’s spirit helped him soar higher than any President before him — literally. A naval aviator in World War II before he turned 19, he never lost his love of flying, and celebrated it by skydiving on his 80th, 85th and 90th birthdays.

His quiet dignity. His commitment to the timeless virtues of community and volunteerism. His love of this country — and this, his adopted city — endeared him to so many, near and far. His was a life of impact, of importance, and significance, and we strive to honor his legacy with a commitment to excellence and public service at the airport that bears his name. 

Please join me, if you would, in a moment of silence and respect for President George Herbert Walker Bush.

I can tell you today with full confidence that the state of the Houston Airport System is strong and growing stronger. And, if you listen to our passengers and industry experts, they agree.

This past spring, Skytrax — recognized world-wide as a leading analyst in the airport and airline industry — awarded Bush Airport a 4-star rating for the first time. Combine that with a third-straight 4-star rating for Hobby Airport, and Houston is now the only city in the Western Hemisphere with not one, but TWO 4-star rated airports.

Let me put that in perspective: When Skytrax audits an airport, it doesn’t casually stroll through. It has stringent standards, with nearly 500 specific points per terminal comparing facilities and services and operations with the benchmarks for industry excellence.

Houston’s airports met those marks — not once, but twice — and joined Tokyo and Seoul as the only cities in the world with two airports rated as 4-star or higher.

So, when you brag about Houston’s airports being the “stars” of Texas aviation, you can do so literally.

And while we very much appreciate industry accolades, it’s what we hear from the people who come to our airports — our passengers — that resonates on an even deeper level.

Just a few months ago, in September, what they think of our airports rang loud and clear when Bush Airport was rated among the Top 10 in the nation in its size category in the J.D. Power 2018 North America Airport Satisfaction Study. Things travelers really care about were rated — facilities, amenities, accessibility, security and food, beverage and retail options — and again both Houston airports scored high among industry leaders.

These honors underscore the fact that service is our hallmark, and just two of the many accolades our airports have received in the past year. They are proof our approach and our commitment to excellence is working, and at a high level.
But, none of that happens in a vacuum. While many factors are important, the key to reaching these vital goals is simple: It’s our people. Their dedication. Their efforts. Their talents. They all combine to make it happen every day. They pump the fuel into our operations and foster a sense of urgency to the mission and vision for our airports.

So, if you will indulge me for a moment, I think it is proper to acknowledge the people who make the Houston Airport System a daily success, and recognize our senior staff, with who I am honored to serve.

First is Jesus Saenz, our Chief Operating Officer. Robert Barker, our Chief Development Officer. Ian Wadsworth, our Chief Commercial Officer. Saba Abashawl, Chief External Affairs Officer. J’Maine Chubb, Chief Financial Officer. Tanya Acevedo, Chief Technology Officer. Harleen Hines-Smith, Chief Human Resources Officer. And our three airport general managers, Kelly Woodward, the interim GM at Bush Airport, Liliana Rambo, the GM at Hobby Airport, and Arturo Machuca, the GM at Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport.

This talented cadre leads a dedicated multitude of 1,200 employees who do the day-to-day work necessary to produce the award-winning results at our airports. They reinforce our values and keep us on course. Please join me in recognizing all they do and all that the team at Houston Airport System does every day.

Now, as important as good people are, it is also important that we provide a modern, accessible and — yes — mobile-friendly airport that today’s savvy traveler demands. The Houston Airport System’s commitment to technology — to leading the way in bringing the kind of technology expected in a truly modern airport — is well-established and continues to grow.

It starts with our industry-leading — and, I want to underscore, FREE — Wi-Fi service available throughout each of the terminal buildings at both airports. With band-widths of 500 megabits per second in each terminal, it can produce download speeds that make watching videos on your mobile devices fast and convenient.

Featured on our WiFi network is the award-winning website. Already recognized as an industry leader and vital tool to travelers, the website was again honored at the American Marketing Association Houston Chapter’s Crystal Awards this past May, this time for its innovative browser-based interactive mapping tool.

And, it took our commitment to customer service even further when we launched both a Spanish-language version of the site, and a robust Chinese-language micro-site version this year. Combine that with the wealth of useful information on dining, shopping, flights, security and customs checkpoint wait times, and more, and remains the “must” first stop on our passengers’ journey.

Once you arrive at our airports, you will find even more helpful and innovative technology available. We have made significant upgrades to the interactive information kiosks throughout Bush and Hobby airports. These new, more accessible kiosks feature very responsive oversized touchscreens, and the screen display can be lowered to ensure it is A-D-A compliant.

Hobby and Bush are the first airports in the Americas with kiosks utilizing new software that can read your boarding pass and produce a 3D map that shows the most efficient route from kiosk to boarding gate. Travelers can even have a map of their route sent directly to their smartphone in a text message.

At Bush Airport, we added automated screening lanes in both Terminal D and Terminal E. The ASL system enhances overall security effectiveness by using technology to better track passenger property throughout the screening process. It also increases both operational efficiency — moving passengers through the process more than 30 percent faster — and the passenger experience by automating some of the functions that were previously done manually.

Also, at Bush and Hobby, we have partnered with CBP on a whole new suite of biometric technologies that aid in moving passengers. Using facial recognition software, passengers are processed both coming and going much quicker and more efficiently. Because of this and other technological tools like mobile passport, and automated passport control, our processing time for moving international passengers through customs inspections ranks with the best in the country.

At Hobby Airport, TSA has provided additional equipment for safe monitoring of carry-on luggage. New CTE scanners provide a three-dimensional image allowing for more thorough and secure monitoring of bags and carry-ons — and it’s more convenient for passengers because they can leave electronics and other items in their bags to be scanned, instead of pulling those items out and putting them in separate bins.

Of course, we talked last year about the success of our smart restroom technology and we have advanced the concept throughout both Bush and Hobby airports. The technology uses iPads as simple input devices, and a robust and powerful set of algorithms to get immediate feedback from our passengers that allows us to monitor in real-time our response required, providing cleaner restrooms that our passengers say are a real positive, while making us more efficient, and helping us reduce costs.

Our goal is to utilize every tool available to make sure our airports are welcoming and accessible to all our passengers. With that in mind, our commitment to technology also offers important tools in meeting the needs of passengers with special needs.

One innovative approach was to provide AIRA service for visually impaired passengers. With a subscription to Aira-assistance, passengers utilize a handy eyeglass-camera, which provides visual information to a virtual assistant who can guide passengers through our airports and support their interactions as they travel more independently.

Our airports are the city’s first and last impression. 
The Houston Airport System handled 55.3 million passengers in the 12 months ending June 2018, that includes more than 11.3 million international passengers.  Keep in mind that data includes the nearly 7-day disruption to travel caused by Hurricane Harvey.

In all, domestic travel included 44-million passengers, a near 2-percent increase from the previous year.

Bush Airport’s international footprint grew this year, when United introduced the longest route yet from Houston with a non-stop flight to Sydney, and increased service to Havana, now offering daily flights, which provides new chances for cultural exchange and educational opportunity.

Our largest carrier at Bush Airport also was one of many airlines to add domestic routes to the American heartland, including daily routes to Akron and Dayton in Ohio.

Also, at Bush, Spirit expanded its international service, announcing flights to San Salvador and Guatemala City, and Air China expanded Houston’s options with a flight to the vital trade center that Panama City has become.

In fact, our air carriers see so much more opportunity for operating out of Houston, we are developing the concept for an expansion of Terminal A at Bush Airport. 

At Hobby, Southwest added routes to Louisville; Milwaukee; Burbank and Sacramento in California; as well as Columbus, Ohio and Philadelphia, and expanded its international offerings to include the Grand Caymans, as well as Punta Cana in 2019.

And there is still potential for growth. Our priority now is re-establishing connections with markets in Africa. For growing African communities in Houston and Houston ties to business on the continent, this pursuit is very important.

We continue to look for potential expansion into India, a well-established international giant in the worlds of culture and commerce.  Its reach has extended to Houston where a vibrant Indo-American community contributes to the quality of life here. As India opens its doors to more travel, we want Houston to be connected.

We are aggressively pursuing other markets. Be assured we continue to look across the global landscape to build ties to Houston. 

The continued growth is not limited to passenger travel. As an important center for international trade, robust cargo operations at Houston’s airports are vital.
At Bush Airport, our Cargo Operations are experiencing a significant increase in tonnage. AirBridgeCargo, CargoLogicAir and Turkish Airlines Cargo have increased operations in Houston over the last year.

Southwest is leveraging its growing international connections at Hobby Airport with expanding cargo operations to Mexico City.

Right now, we are on pace this year to handle more than 500-thousand metric tons in cargo — a number that could grow even more with Volga-Dnepr’s new operations center at Bush Airport, which just became fully operational this month and will be a home to one of their massive Antonov-124s.

For this reason, our Infrastructure division is developing a new cargo master plan identifying space and commercial opportunities. We will engage Houston’s development community to make this happen.

We are very excited about what the IAH Terminal Redevelopment Program will mean to the growth and development of this City and its recognition as an international hub.

The original 2014 program has undergone a very positive shift in plan. The idea now is to combine Terminals D and E by 2024. All ticketing counters, security lanes and baggage claims will be consolidated and moved to a new international ticketing hall in place of what is today the D/E parking garage.

There will be separate concourses in Terminal D and Terminal E where passengers will board their planes, shop, dine, be entertained, or simply relax in an airport lounge. And, no longer will Terminal E domestic passengers have to retrieve checked bags in Terminal C.

Building capacity doesn’t stop there. Along with the plans to revitalize Terminal A, major renovation work is being done on runways and taxiways at both airports to ensure our passengers the highest levels of safety.

 Of course, we cannot talk about the future of our airports without talking about the future of aviation — and so, we talk about what Ellington Airport promises.

Very soon, we will cut the ribbon on a new, state-of-the-art air traffic control tower at Ellington. This 143-foot tower is twice the height of the older tower. It features improved radio communications, and a new automated weather observation system.

At $12.4 million dollars, what is phenomenal about this tower is it has been designed with the future in mind. It is built fully capable of supporting flight operations for aircraft travelling across the globe and into outer space.

That travel is coming. The Houston Spaceport now is taking real, solid steps toward developing into a viable and active commercial spaceport.

An important step toward that goal came just a few weeks ago, when Houston City Council approved the expenditure of nearly $19 million dollars to begin development of infrastructure to support commercial operations.

This includes new roads, sewer and utilities to support those businesses that want to take advantage of the vast amount of aeronautical expertise that exists in the Bay Area.

We are in discussions with San Jacinto College, and two major Texas Universities to develop facilities for training in the manufacturing trades for advanced materials and robotics, among other disciplines.

And we are developing our partnership with the U.S. Army’s future command. This momentum means the future is now for the Houston Spaceport.

We’ve talked a lot today about the focus on delivering a world-class experience at world-class airports, and the fact is industry experts and our passengers tell us that we are achieving just that — and doing so by doing the little things, and the unexpected things, that make coming to the airport, and more importantly, coming to our city, more than merely hitching a ride.

With a robust public art program, passengers are surrounded by images and art that enhance the atmosphere. And, our performing arts program, Harmony in the Air, is an unexpected treat, and successful beyond expectation — our passengers tell us nearly universally that it is a real asset to our airport and their overall experience.  

Of course, nothing beats the true human element, so we are also very grateful for our Volunteer Ambassadors, more than 140 strong at Bush and Hobby. They greet airport visitors, provide general information, and actively seek out ways to provide 4-star customer service to everyone in our terminals.

Actually, make that 5-STAR service! Thank-you to our Volunteer Ambassadors!

International travel is on the rise at Bush and Hobby, and we are so pleased to provide world-class options in our new concessions – our passengers receive the twin pleasures of quality and variety, and it’s uniquely Houston. From global brands to local favorites, we’ve got something for everyone.

As I mentioned, our employees and our partners care so much about our operations. Again, a special thank-you to Customs and Border Protection along with the Transportation Security Administration. We are grateful for the checks and balances you bring to our day-to-day operations.

But, our commitment to community goes beyond typical airport operations. We strive to be good stewards of the community, and good neighbors.

That’s why we support programs that make a difference in the community. This year we partnered with a group called Edge4Vets. The program helps prepare highly qualified veterans to use the skills they developed during their time in the military – to support their efforts to get hired. Many of our business partners have joined in this worthwhile effort. 

We also joined with the City of Houston to host about a dozen college interns as part of the Hire Houston Youth program. And once again, we joined with NASA, Texas Southern University and HISD to introduce high school students to the world of aviation through the Houston Airport System Aviation Club, now in its sixth year. 

These are just a few of the ways we seek to serve Houston.

Since 2010, when I first came to this great City and Houston Airports, I have been overwhelmed by the rich and illustrious history of Houston and of Bush Airport. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary for Bush – 50 years, and they have been golden.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport first opened its doors in June 1969, and we are planning full-throttle to celebrate this golden anniversary in the coming months. One notable event is the IAH Fest in March – stay tuned for details and please come and join us – we are going to have a great time and there will be events and activities for all ages.

Now, join me in taking a panoramic view of 50 years of George Bush International Airport.

The forethought to ensure Houston had the infrastructure to build global relationships put our growth and stature as a city into hyperdrive, surpassing many along the way. We are working very hard to grow Bush, Hobby, and Ellington airports to meet the needs of our dynamic city.

The demand for continued growth is real. The plans for growth and future development at Bush Airport, the continued steady passenger growth at Hobby, expansion of cargo operations at both airports, and the first vital steps in moving the Spaceport project forward are evidence of a vital future for our Houston airports.

We have a clear framework on which to build toward our vision. Our direction is clear. And there is still a goal out there — one more star to reach to become a 5-star airport system — to drive us forward.

We are committed to pleasing our passengers and achieving the 5-star goal will validate that commitment.

To come full circle, greatness is intentional and is accomplished through talent, determination, and through truly loving what you do. Of course, having good people and enjoying a little good fortune along the way doesn’t hurt.

We appreciate you spending time this afternoon with us to hear what great things are happening at your Houston airports. On behalf of everyone at HAS, again I say thank you!