The theme of the 2015 State of the Airports address — “Building the Future” — held both figurative and literal meanings.
Figuratively speaking, Houston Aviation Director Mario. C. Diaz recounted the record-setting growth of passenger numbers and continued expansion of service options at the three Houston Airport System airports during his annual address, held March 23 at the Royal Sonesta in Houston.
And literally, Diaz updated the audience on the progress and plans for the ambitious facility and infrastructure projects underway that will help handle both that growth and the continued upward trends.
Citing “the sense of urgency that’s driving us today” during the 30-minute address, Diaz touched on a number of growth-related topics:
On top of a record of more than 53 million passengers who passed through HAS airports in 2014, Diaz pointed out the record number of international travelers — at more than 9.8 million in 2014 — is nearly double that of 2000, and serves to “connect Houston in a global manner that’s never been seen before in the city’s rich history.”
While the numbers for service to Latin American markets remain as strong as ever, he also pointed out that the rapid expansion is reaching “well beyond the Gulf of Mexico. In just the past year alone, travel to Asia and Africa has increased 55 percent. Travel to Europe increased by 10 percent since last year, and if you look at a five-year window, travel to the Middle East has increased by more than 100 percent.”
Diaz pointed out that the number of seats traveling between Houston and Asia has increased by about 400 percent over the past two years alone, and said that kind of continued demand “is driving force behind the arrival of the new airlines and the arrival of new service options from existing carriers.”
New service growth
Diaz pointed out the “unprecedented success in expanding that route map” for not only Bush Intercontinental, but also the expansion into international service at Hobby Airport. Three new international airlines began service in 2014, and a total of six new international markets gained service in 2014.
As well, service to existing markets continued to expand, with domestic and international commitments from IAH anchor airline United Airlines as well as service expansion from Spirit Airlines and AeroMexico.
The 2014 boom was a harbinger for what is coming in 2015: The opening of the new, $156 million five-gate international terminal at Hobby Airport later in 2015 will usher in a year that already will see four new international carriers scheduled to begin service, as well as five new international markets set to gain service by the end of the calendar year.
“Last year, we enjoyed unprecedented success in expanding that route map,” Diaz said, “bringing in new airlines to the Houston market and opening up new nonstop destinations through existing carriers. “
Diaz pointed out that HAS facilities need to grow in step with the increase in service and passenger numbers, and said that with the increasing number of international passengers at IAH — and soon Hobby Airport, as well — projects like the new international terminal at Bush Intercontinental and the new international terminal at Hobby Airport will expand the City of Houston’s role as a “key global gateway destination, with international passengers flowing through Houston on their way throughout the America’s and to various destinations within the U.S.”
With City Council’s overwhelming approval in June 2014 of the funding and phasing plan necessary to move forward with the new Mickey Leland International terminal project — and with a key partnership with United Airlines in place — Diaz said this integral initiative will result in a “dramatic international entry point” that will create “a distinctly ‘Houston’ experience” for international travelers coming to Bush Intercontinental.
The HAS project team has been “busy putting together the appropriate management team, explaining the project to members of the surrounding community and working through the countless logistical details that inevitably come with a project this size,” Diaz said, noting that demolition work is scheduled to begin in 2017, with the new terminal up and running by the end of 2021.
In the near future, Diaz said the opening of the international terminal at Hobby Airport is “expected to generate an additional 1 million passengers each year” on top of the record near 12 million passengers who came through that airport in 2014.
But more than the additional international gates, Diaz pointed out that the project will include a new multi-level parking garage that will add approximately 3,000 new spaces to the airport’s parking inventory and an extension of the upper-level roadway, allowing for easier traffic flow regardless of the passenger’s ultimate destination.
“This will be a historic moment that unfolds in October,” Diaz said, “but, the fact is, Houston has already enjoyed significant benefits because of these projects. New jobs have been created as a result of the work, millions of dollars have been pumped into the Houston economy and new air service has already been established in preparation for the new international route map.”
“These new facilities and these new flights are incredibly important in making sure that this positive momentum continues for decades to come,” he said.
As much as the brick-and-mortar expansion, building on the “customer experience” was an important focus for all HAS facilities in 2014.
Efforts aimed at enhancing the customer experience were rolled out during 2014, including free access to high-powered Wi-Fi service. Free of charge and with an average of 6 to 8 megabits per second, it is one of the most robust Wi-Fi signals found at any U.S. airport, Diaz said.
As well, dramatic monuments now mark the customer’s arrival and departure at Bush Intercontinental, with similar works headed for Hobby in the very near future. In Terminal D, millions of dollars were invested on a renovated executive lounge, new seating areas in the ticketing hall and dramatic improvements to the restroom facilities there and in Terminal A.
A little more than a year ago, HAS unveiled a group of kiosks in the U.S. Customs processing area, called the “Automated Passport Control” system. These self-serve kiosks allow arriving international passengers to simply place their passport on a scanner, where their information is electronically passed along to a waiting customs agent. This technological not only provides more accurate information but also lessens the time needed for primary screening by an average of 35 percent. These kiosks also will be used at Hobby Airport’s new international facility.
HAS’s re-vamped “Houston Friendly” customer service program is beginning to show dividends, Diaz said. In 2014, a customer satisfaction survey showed the passenger satisfaction rate at Bush Intercontinental easily eclipsed the scores recorded in 2013, with 78 percent saying they were “Quite Satisfied” with the service they received. The number at Hobby Airport was even higher, with 86 percent saying they were “Quite Satisfied” even in the midst of a major construction project.
“These types of results don’t just happen on their own,” Diaz said. “They can only occur when you have dedicated employees who are committed to creating a positive atmosphere and memorable experience for the 53 million guests that we encounter each year.”
In addition to the enhanced human touch, HAS continued its role as a leader in technological expansion in 2014.
Houston became the first city in the nation to complete the Metroplex NextGen airspace redesign project, a federal initiative that increases on-time efficiency and improves the customer experience by allowing pilots to plot a more natural descent, “as if sliding down a bannister rather than a step by step approach down a staircase,” Diaz said.
This was in addition to the opening of a new TRACON facility, where Federal Aviation Administration operators monitor 16-thousand square miles of airspace running from Louisiana to Austin to Houston.
Spaceport project moving forward
Calling it possibly “the most impressive chapter” in HAS’s technological advances, Diaz pointed out that the airports system has officially filed its application with the FAA to become the nation’s tenth licensed commercial spaceport. With a decision from that body due no later than June, Diaz said he is “optimistic that this concept is going to become a key component of future growth plans at Ellington Airport.”
With astronaut training, the launching of micro-satellites, zero-gravity experimentation and a host of other activities possible, Diaz noted the space and infrastructure in place to support the proposed facility is in place, but added that the project is promising because Houston has “an incredibly dynamic economy that’s connected to other economies on a global level,” and already has “a strong connection with the aerospace industry.”
“These operations, and the host of different jobs associated with them, allow Houston an opportunity to strengthen its reputation as a forward-looking city and leader in creating high-tech, next generation type jobs,” he said.
HAS continued its efforts to be an active and vital part of the Houston community with support for a number of events designed to “be a human connection at the heart of everything we do,” Diaz said.
Events like “Wings Over Houston Airshow” — which saw more than 100,000 people attend the two-day aviation event in October — and the “9-11 Heroes Run” — which had more than 3,000 runners participate in a 5K run designed to support military heroes who have been injured while serving their country and community — enjoyed unprecedented success help “strengthen the bond that already exists between the airport operations and the 6 million people who call the Houston area home,” Diaz said.
To view photos from our State of the Airports event, click here.