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Driven by big business, Houston’s airports — especially George Bush International — are becoming some global corporations’ primary gateway to the U.S.
The Houston Airport System, which has celebrated the addition of three new international carriers offering nonstop service over the past year, could welcome four more in 2014, director Mario Diaz said Thursday.
Diaz did not specify which carriers are in talks, but he described two of the deals as close to completion and said two other airlines are “very interested” in adding routes here.
“Our mission is to connect the people, the businesses, the cultures and the economies of the world to Houston,” he said in the annual State of the Airport address. “The best way we can reach this goal is to maximize the level of connectivity available to the Houston region, to put as many nonstop routes on the board as possible and to make sure that the route map is viewed through a global lens.”
Diaz also trumpeted the beginning of construction for Hobby Airport‘s international terminal and the start of renovations at Bush Intercontinental‘s Terminal D, all of which he said make the city more attractive as a global hub.
The activity occurred as 2013 brought record traffic to Hobby and more international travelers than ever to Bush.
“I have never been associated with a single year that was more eventful than the year that just passed,” Diaz told a group of about 450 at the Greater Houston Partnership event. “Houston is connected on a level that we have never experienced before and the Houston Airport System is going to do everything possible to keep that positive momentum moving forward.”
He said that momentum might even extend beyond Earth, as plans to make Ellington Airport a spaceport continue to advance. He predicted operations could begin as early as 2016.
A major focus of his address was the addition of new international flights at Bush.
Since last April, Houston’s largest airport has either added or announced three new international carriers with nonstop routes: Turkish Airlines to Istanbul, Air China to Beijing and Korean Air to Seoul. All increased the number of flights from original plans.
Meanwhile, Diaz said, Singapore Airlines, Aeromexico and Spirit Airlines also increased their local presence last year. United Airlines also announced it will offer new flights to Tokyo and Munich.
While not identifying the carriers now in discussions to add flights here, Diaz said in later remarks that the airport system does well with nonstop flights to western Europe and now Asia, but he would like to see more long-haul flights in South American countries, including Brazil, Argentina and Chile, and in Africa.
He said Hobby’s new international terminal will likely serve shorter flights, such as to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
Diaz said the airport is working with United Airlines and foreign carriers that use Terminal D, the international terminal, to design and begin a major overhaul.
“We recognize the fact that the current building does not adequately reflect Houston’s standing as a premier international gateway city,” Diaz said.
Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer, agreed Thursday that the airport system is critical to Houston’s growth, contributing $27 billion to the economy and extending the city’s business reach. He said up to a quarter of Houstonians were not born in the United States.
“It does matter that Houston is a global city,” Icken said. “We have made the point over and over again; a city just like any other in America depends on trade.”
Diaz also noted that Bush has begun renovations to its onsite Marriott Hotel and the bathrooms in Terminal A.
When he noted the replacement of aging traffic signs at Bush with modern, colorful ones, the room burst into applause.
In his post-speech comments, Diaz said feasibility studies have been completed for converting Ellington into a spaceport. He said the application process for a Federal Aviation Administration license will likely total $1.5 million.
If that license is granted, Houston could be home to an array of space-related services, from craft assembly to satellite launches to astronaut training — and space tourism, with flights into space available for $200,000.
Diaz said he hopes to have a license by June 2015, with operations beginning as early as 2016.
“It’s simply the next logical step in the evolution of commercial travel,” he said. “And I believe Houston needs to be leading the charge, especially given the fact that we enjoy such a well-deserved reputation as a leader in the aerospace industry.”