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Its white terrazzo floors polished to a hard shine, Houston’s newest airport welcomed thousands on a bright, sunny day in June 1969 to kick off a weeklong open house.
City leaders, journalists and visitors from around the country mingled among the aircraft on display, watched a Blue Angels air show and snacked on cake and punch. The smell of fresh paint lingered on the walls.
Houston’s Intercontinental Airport was promoted as the “world’s first supersonic jet airport” and one “so big it will have electronic trains to speed passengers between connecting flights.” A local magazine, looking back on the opening a year later, said it represented “tomorrow’s aviation.”
“The accolades rang out across the country while locally, Houstonians marveled at the blend of starkly beautiful with the functional in their new airport,” the account in Houston Magazine said.
The airport, now George Bush Intercontinental Airport, commemorates 45 years of operations on Saturday. Visitors again are invited to celebrate the past and the major changes underway at Houston’s largest airport.
“I definitely think we are entering a new chapter,” Houston Airport System spokesman David Hebert said, noting new construction projects, updates to the airport’s technology and a growth in international activity.
Had space station look
David Robertson, then 5 but destined to work for the local airport system one day, remembers standing on the observation deck during his tour of the new complex, which had two terminals in the middle of a former cow pasture in an undeveloped area in north Houston.
“We were so excited to see the airport,” he said. “It resembled to me, as a kid, what space stations would look like.”
A month before Apollo 11 reached the moon under the guidance of Mission Control in Houston, space exploration was on the young man’s mind as he toured the lobbies, with sleek black and white color schemes, and the mod furniture in the waiting rooms and baggage areas. He was impressed by the underground train that connected the terminals.
“In the late 1960s, there was still an element of fascination with flying,” he said. “I thought by the time I was a teenager I’d be making space trips to the moon. I was sure that’s where we were heading.”
Bush Intercontinental Airport, rechristened in 1997 in honor of former President George H.W. Bush, serves about 40 million passengers each year, up from 1.4 million when it opened. It has become a major global gateway with nonstop flights to 122 destinations in the U.S. and nearly 70 international destinations. Last year, almost 9 million international passengers went through the airport, a record.
The airport may have seemed futuristic in 1969, but many parts of the airport have had to be renovated and updated. A new concourse at Terminal B is four times the size of the original. The adjacent Marriott hotel is slated for an overhaul, and the airport system hopes to completely rebuild Terminal D, said Carl Newman, Bush Intercontinental’s general manager.
“We are in the midst of heavy lifting,” Newman said. “We want to make sure Houston is on the forefront and this is one of the airports that becomes the standard of airports in the Americas.”
Newman said the airport is improving the WiFi bandwidth in the airport while integrating services with passengers’ smartphones. New kiosks installed recently at Customs and Border Patrol have improved wait times by 30 to 40 percent.
“In its day, Terminals A and B were probably very futuristic and really worked to serve their time,” Newman said. “As with most things, that changes over time. We need to make fundamental investment and change to keep up with what’s going on in the industry.”
The airport added Terminals C, D and E over next several decades. It also saw three generations of the underground trains, including the final one designed in 1981 by Disney executives that included a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Mickey Mouse.
A history of IAH
Robertson, now 50, made his first trip from Intercontinental in 1971. As an adult, he worked for Continental Airlines before joining the Houston Airport System operations team in 2004. He is the airport’s unofficial historian and compiled a history dating back to its conception in the 1950s.
“We continued to watch it grow and expand,” Robertson said, “even if it lost that space station appeal.” ___