With the passing of President George H.W. Bush still fresh on the minds of Houstonians, Houston Aviation Director Mario Diaz struck a reflective and optimistic tone as he delivered the annual State of the Airports address on Dec. 14 at the downtown Hilton Americas-Houston.
More than 400 were in attendance as Diaz discussed the late President’s legacy with regard to Houston Airports and a past year of high achievement for the HAS. He expounded upon the future of air transportation and how HAS plays a key role in strengthening the city’s dynamic economy.
Moment of Silence for President Bush
Fittingly, Diaz began his well-received 25-minute speech with acknowledgements and a moment of silence in honor of the man after whom the airport was renamed in 1997. President Bush died on Nov. 30 in his adopted home town of Houston.” His was a life of impact, of importance, and significance,” Diaz said, “and we strive to honor his legacy with a commitment to excellence and public service at the airport that bears his name.”
The original name of the airport was Houston Intercontinental Airport but was renamed George Bush Intercontinental Airport (Bush) in 1997.
Recognitions from Skytrax and J.D. Power
A commitment to excellence and public service were themes throughout the speech as Diaz then touted Houston as only the third city in the world and only city in the U.S. that has two airports with a 4-star or better rating from aviation industry experts Skytrax. In 2018, William P. Hobby Airport (Hobby) received recognition as a 4-star airport for the third consecutive year and Bush achieved the honor for the first time.
Diaz emphasized that the state of the HAS is strong and growing stronger. He also noted that customers agree as both Bush and Hobby airports were rated among the Top 10 in the nation in their respective size categories in the J.D. Power 2018 North America Airport Satisfaction Study, released in September 2018.
He was quick to credit senior staff and the 1,200 employees who comprise the HAS and do the day-to-day work necessary to produce those accolades.
Commitment to Technology
Diaz emphasized that HAS is a modern airport system that has a mobile-friendly commitment to technology – that includes an award-winning fly-2-houston.com website that also includes a Spanish-language version and a robust Chinese-language micro-site version added this year. HAS also made significant upgrades to the interactive information kiosks throughout Bush and Hobby airports. At Bush, automated screening lanes were added to Terminals D and E.
Also, Bush and Hobby partnered with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on a new suite of biometric technologies that aid in moving passengers. At Hobby Airport, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) 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.
The HAS commitment to technology didn’t stop there. HAS provides AIRA (EYE-ruh) service for visually impaired passengers. With a subscription to AIRA, passengers utilize a handy eyeglass-camera, which provides visual information to a virtual assistant who can guide passengers through the airport and supports their interactions as they travel more independently.
Continued Expansion and Reach of Passenger Service
HAS handled more than 55 million passengers in the 12 months ending June 2018, an increase of nearly 1 percent from the year before, numbers that include more than 11.3 million international passengers. (Those figures factor in the nearly 7-day disruption to travel caused by Hurricane Harvey.)
In all, the 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 direct flight to Sydney, and daily flights to Cuba. United also added 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 Panama City.
Diaz reported that, because air carriers see so much more opportunity for operating out of Houston, HAS is 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.
Diaz reported that there is still tremendous potential for growth. He said that a priority is to reestablish connections with markets in Africa and potential expansion into India.
Breadth and Depth of Cargo Operations
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. Diaz said that HAS is on a record pace this year to handle more than 500,000 metric tons in cargo — a number that could grow even more with Volga Dnepr’s plans to open a new operations center at Bush Airport. Volga Dnepr is the leading carrier of oversized and super-heavy air cargo.
For this reason, HAS’s Infrastructure division is developing a new cargo master plan identifying space and commercial opportunities. Diaz said that the HAS will engage Houston’s development community to make this happen.
IAH Terminal Redevelopment Program and More
He also reported on the progress of the IAH Terminal Redevelopment Program (ITRP) and what it will mean to the growth and development of this City and its recognition as an international hub. Changed since the original 2014 program, the new plan will essentially combine Terminals D and E by 2024. All the ticketing counters, security lanes and baggage claims will be consolidated and moved to Terminal E. There will be separate concourses in Terminal D and Terminal E where passengers will board their planes, get some food, or simply relax in an airport lounge. The new terminal will have more lanes in the curbside areas for dropping off and picking up passengers, more baggage claims, and will solve a longstanding issue - domestic travelers who land in Terminal E will no longer have to travel to Terminal C to collect their luggage.
Along with the ITRP and plans to revitalize Terminal A, major renovation work is being done on runways and taxiways at both airports to ensure HAS receives passengers safely and are caring for the airborne assets.
Diaz discussed many upcoming changes and improvements at Ellington Airport, including a new, state-of-the-art Air Traffic Control Tower that features improved radio communications and a new automated weather observation system. It is built fully capable of supporting flight operations for aircraft traveling to space. Additionally, the Houston City Council recently approved the expenditure of nearly $19 million to begin development of infrastructure to support commercial operations for the Houston Spaceport. 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.
He discussed the value of public art, performing arts, and voluntary ambassadors to the functionality and customer friendliness of the HAS, and discussed his appreciation and the significant qualitative impact of each of these functions. Community service didn’t end there – programs such as Edge4Vets and Hire Houston Youth were also lauded by Diaz.
Upcoming Celebration of IAH 50th Anniversary
He discussed the fact that Bush first opened its doors in June 1969, and Diaz said the HAS is planning “full-throttle to celebrate this golden anniversary in the coming months.” He asked attendees to stay tuned for details on the IAH Fest in March which will celebrate Bush’s 50 years in grand style with events for all.
Drive to Five
Diaz concluded by touting that the HAS’ commitment to excellent and public service were pathways to achieve the clear direction and goal of the HAS – to become a 5-star airport system. “We are committed to pleasing our customers,” he said, “and achieving the 5-star goal will validate that commitment.”