Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport Hits 50 years

David "Hoss" Robertson was 5 years old when his father brought him to the grand opening of Houston Intercontinental Airport. Leaving the family station wagon for the shiny new airport, he marveled at the round flight stations where gates were located and the polished terrazzo tiles.

But he was particularly taken by the enclosed jet bridges, which reminded him of astronaut walkways.

The Houston Chronicle reports with America's race to the moon nearing its culmination, Robertson thought he had glimpsed the future as he dreamed about Houston Intergalactic -- er, Intercontinental -- transforming the city into a hub for spaceflight.

Fifty years later, the airport has been transformative, just not in the way the 5-year-old Robertson expected. Instead of trips to the moon, the airport's domestic and international routes have made Houston a global city, helping to lure Fortune 500 headquarters, the U.S. subsidiaries of some of the biggest foreign corporations, and the talent that underpins the world's greatest cluster of energy companies and largest medical complex.

"You couldn't have CEOs and corporate headquarters in Houston if they couldn't get where they needed to be," said Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research for the Greater Houston Partnership. "You cannot do business on a global basis without an airport like Intercontinental."

Houston Intercontinental, renamed George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 1997, received its first flight on June 8, 1969, a few days after Robertson, now 55 and a Houston airport employee, attended the grand opening festivities. The airport started with just a handful of airlines that carried 4.5 million passengers in its first year.

Today, the airport has 27 airlines -- 20 based in other countries -- that fly to 115 domestic and 68 international destinations. It supports 170,000 local jobs and accommodated 43.8 million passengers last year. Bush Intercontinental generated more than $22 billion in direct, indirect and induced economic activity, according to a 2018 study prepared for the Texas Department of Transportation.

Without Intercontinental, Jankowski said the city would have significantly less office space. The exchange of ideas in the Texas Medical Center would be stunted. And Houston's convention business, which last year booked a record 498 meetings and conventions, would be practically nonexistent.

"Could you imagine trying to put on an Offshore Technology Conference if everyone had to fly into Dallas or New Orleans and catch a bus or rent a car?" Jankowski asked. "It's that glue that holds the rest of the economy together. Houston would be a lot poorer without Intercontinental Airport."

For Robertson, the airport has fueled a lifelong passion for aviation. As an airside operations coordinator, he inspects pavement conditions on the runway, makes sure lights work at night and coordinates with first responders during plane emergencies. He also gets a first look at the technologies advancing air travel.

"You can go more places in less time than you ever could," he said. "And to watch all that change is still like an enticement, a carrot."

A lottery selected Texas International Airlines as the first carrier to land at Houston Intercontinental. So on June 7, 1969, just before midnight, the who's who of Houston boarded a plane at Hobby Airport (then called Houston International Airport) and took the short ride to Houston Intercontinental, landing in early morning of June 8.

The airport opened with Terminal A and Terminal B. Both had a central area for ticketing and baggage claim, and then four concourses that led to circular flight stations with five gates each.

Only two original flight stations remain on the north side of Terminal B. The others were replaced with linear concourses that jut from the central ticketing area in straight lines. These allow for more wide-body aircraft and provide space for additional stores and restaurants.

But for Robertson, whose dad traveled a lot as an energy executive, those circular flight stations bring back memories of standing on the observation deck and watching his father's plane depart.

"If I happen to go by Terminal B and I happen to look over there," he said, "I can still remember some really fun times with my folks."

These early airport experiences laid the foundation for Robertson's career, where he spent many years helping airlines with their computer-based training, reservation systems and crew scheduling. He joined Intercontinental in 2004.

And Robertson wasn't the only city employee to find inspiration at the airport's 1969 grand opening festivities. His supervisor John A. Lewandowski, 66 years old and a 32-year employee with the Houston Airport System, was 16 when the airport opened.

He attended the festivities with his parents and siblings. He recalls throngs of people, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels performing aerial demonstrations and the wow factor of walking on the tarmac.

It was his first of many trips.

"I remember going to the top level of the parking garage and watching the airplanes," he said, "and just wishing I could work here. And now, I'm working here."

When Terminals A and B opened, they were connected by an underground train, which soon proved unreliable. So WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises, the precursor to Walt Disney Imagineering that dreams up, designs and builds Disney theme parks, resorts, attractions and more, offered to build a new train similar to their PeopleMover at Disney theme parks.

That train, still being used today, opened in 1981 with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in attendance. That same year, Terminal C began operations.

Terminal D, the international terminal, followed in 1990. It was the first common use terminal at Intercontinental, meaning airlines didn't have specific gates or ticket counters but shared them, a cost-effective strategy that helped lure international carriers.

"That's what created an opportunity for growth and progression for the international market to begin to do business with the city of Houston," said Jesus Saenz, chief operating officer of the Houston Airport System.

Additional space became available for international carriers in 2003 when Houston-based Continental Airlines opened Terminal E and moved its international flights there. Continental merged with United Airlines of Chicago in 2010.

To accommodate future growth, the city is crafting a $1.2 billion project that would essentially combine Terminals D and E by 2024. Ticketing counters, security lanes and baggage claims would be consolidated in Terminal E. Then there will be two concourses -- one in the Terminal D and one in the Terminal E -- where passenger would board their planes, grab food or relax in an airport lounge.

The project already has run into delays, including a controversy sparked in late 2015 by the city controller's office, which raised potential violations of procurement rules in awarding contracts. Mayor Sylvester Turner, just one month after being sworn into office, tore up the contracts and restarted the bidding process.

The project, considered by airport officials as vital for Bush Intercontinental's next 50 years of growth, is moving forward. It will add new gates to accommodate airlines' largest planes and additional lanes in the curbside areas for dropping off and picking up passengers. It will rectify a problem that has long irked travelers -- domestic travelers who land in Terminal E will no longer have to trek to Terminal C to collect their luggage

The airport also is considering expansion for its growing cargo operations.

"International flights will dominate airports of the future, especially those connecting cities separated by water," Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz said in a statement "Migration of the population will continue into large cities like Houston. This combination and more international trade through cargo are the key reasons that the project has got to be completed."

While Robertson (probably) won't be working at the airport 50 years from now, he's glad to help build an airport that his 15-year-old twin daughters, Kate and Jenna, can enjoy now and on its 100th anniversary in 2069.

"I've taken them out there a few times on tours," he said, "so hopefully when they use the airport they will have the same kind of fond memories of me and their mom as I have with my folks."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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