Airport chief sees Houston growing as international gateway

Construction is slated to begin in 2017 on a new Terminal D for Bush Intercontinental Airport. This rendering shows some of its open space for welcoming international passengers.

Houston’s thriving immigrant community and diverse economy will help the city’s airports continue to expand despite an oil slump that may temper the boom in business travel, Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz told business leaders Monday.
Delivering the annual State of the Airports address, Diaz said he remains confident the airport system’s unprecedented growth over the last two years would continue, with Bush Intercontinental, Hobby and Ellington airports all poised for major changes.

“Houston is without a doubt the most diverse city in the nation, and the Houston Airport System has made that possible,” Diaz told a crowd at the Royal Sonesta. “We will continue to connect Houston to the rest of the world.”

Houston’s airports set a record in 2014 with more than 53 million passengers passing through. Internationally, 9.8 million travelers went through Bush, double the rate in 2000. Last year alone, travel to Asia and Africa increased 55 percent, and travel to Europe increased 10 percent.

This is in large part thanks to a string of new international nonstop flights added at the airport, including six new markets last year.

Among the flights added are a nonstop Korean Air flight to the Seoul area, and Scandinavian Airlines nonstop to Stavanger, Norway.

“Right now, the city of Houston is within reach of a very unique and very powerful opportunity,” Diaz said. “Houston is poised to become a key global gateway destination, with international passengers flowing through Houston on their way throughout the Americas and to various destinations in the U.S.”

The airport has consistently touted Houston’s powerful economy when attracting new carriers. Diaz said even with a tumble in oil prices, he expects to attract more flights. He noted the large number of immigrants in the Houston area, and the health of the medical, aerospace and petrochemical industries locally.

“People ask me, why is it so easy for me to find airlines?” Diaz said. “What they want to hear is how powerful is the economy, how many passengers can you generate, what quality passenger?”

He said a drop in oil prices could dampen demand for first class and business class travelers. But, he added, passengers looking to visit family in other countries could find lower prices for coach seats, thanks to added competition.

The next area he would like to add is nonstop flights is Africa, Diaz said.

International flights are expected to continue growing.

Hobby will open a $156 million, five-gate international terminal in October. Southwest Airlines, which is primarily funding the project, will add several flights to Latin America. The airport will have a 3,000-space parking garage to accommodate the1 million passengers expected to be added annually.

Bush will have a new Terminal D by 2020. The City Council approved the funding and phasing plan for the terminal project in June. Construction is slated to begin in 2017. Diaz said one hurdle to Houston’s role as an international player is the aging terminal at Bush for international passengers.

The airport system also completed its Federal Aviation Administration application for Ellington to become a commercial spaceport.

Diaz also touted the free WiFi service now available at all terminals at Bush and Hobby, automated kiosks to expedite the process for international travelers, and the NextGen federal project that the airport adopted to improve on-time arrivals.


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