Houston Aviation Director Mario Diaz

More than 400 guests gathered in a spacious ballroom at the Marriott Marquis Houston to hear Houston Aviation Director Mario Diaz give his 2021 State of the Airports address Oct. 22. The audience included the City of Houston’s Chief Development Officer Andy Icken, elected officials, community leaders and business executives. 

The event was again hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership. Katie Pryor, chief development officer and senior vice president, member engagement, welcomed everyone and provided opening remarks. Bob Harvey, GHP president and CEO, introduced Diaz and also delivered closing remarks. Diaz spoke for nearly 30 minutes on the theme of “Building Forward Better.” 

Opening remarks  

After recognizing Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and many public figures and federal agency partners, Diaz began with the recognition of these tumultuous times with COVID-19 and its variants still dominating the landscape. He honored those who had lost their lives and also recognized the sacrifices and commitment of the many who have soldiered on throughout the pandemic – scientists, lab workers and the like who brought us life-saving vaccines in record time. 

He then addressed the need to focus forward and “build new.” 

Over the course of his speech, he discussed many topics of significance with regard to Houston Airports, including recent awards, the air service rebound, the IAH Terminal Redevelopment Program (ITRP) and the Terminal A Redevelopment Program. 

Air service rebound  

With regard to the air service rebound, he said, “Air travel restoration has been a big focus for us.”  

He recalled Houston Airports lowest point in April 2020 when passenger traffic was down by a whopping 95 percent.  

“In August 2021, 15 months after our lowest point, we nearly reached pre-pandemic levels - only down by 15 percent,” Diaz said.  

Projections are strong for the remainder of the year and the projection model “shows we should end 2021 with over 44 million passengers at both airports,” Diaz continued.  

That’s nearly an 80 percent increase from 2020, but still down by about 25 percent of the pre-pandemic level in 2019.  

As of now, he said Houston Airports anticipates reaching pre-pandemic travel numbers by 2023 or early 2024. He was highly complimentary of the Mexico market which actually exceeded 2019 levels and is still going strong— mostly due to leisure travel and visits to loved ones from family members.  

IAH Terminal Redevelopment Program, ITRP

He updated the crowd on the status of ITRP. 

The $1.3-billion-dollar ITRP is going strong and is now well into construction. ITRP includes several projects—building the new Mickey Leland International arrivals and departures hall, the Federal Inspection Services area, the new D-West Pier that will accommodate more wide-body aircraft and complete renovation of the Terminal D concourse.  

“The entire program will be delivered on time and on budget in phases, beginning with the completion of the D-West Pier in early 2023, followed by the renovation of the D Concourse, and then the International Processor building in 2024,” Diaz said.  

Terminal A Redevelopment Program 

He also briefly discussed another major infrastructure program will soon be taking place at Terminal A. At Terminal A, some of the interior infrastructure is more than 50 years old. The plan will build capacity for growth and modernize the terminal for decades to come.  

Airside, Diaz explained that the plan is to construct additional new gates and outfit them with new boarding bridges.  

Inside the terminal, restrooms will be renovated, carpeting will be replaced with quartz tile floors, and 50-year-old fixtures and old furniture will be given an upgrade that is long overdue. Outside Terminal A, the Airport will be improving the public and commercial curbside experience. 

William P. Hobby Airport 

Hobby Airport—which the director characterized as the airport system’s “rising star” — has had an exciting 2021 while upgrading the passenger experience for millions. Hobby’s multiple improvements include smart restrooms, a new 1,300-square-foot children’s play area, a new interfaith chapel, new pet relief areas and 90,000 square feet of new quartz tile flooring and carpet that was installed in the central concourse late last year.  

Customer experience brand promise 

“This past year has provided us an opportunity to ‘build forward better’ on our award-winning passenger experience offerings,” Diaz said.  

He quoted late poet Maya Angelou who said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  

“I can tell you that we have rethought our culture at Houston Airports, and this philosophy has informed the new promise we make every single day to our guests,” Diaz said.  

The Houston Airports’ customer experience promise is: 

“From your house to ours, we promise to deliver a five-star airport experience for our guests that showcases world-class service, modern facilities and uniquely ‘Houston friendly’ hospitality – first time, every time.”  

Technological initiatives 

He also talked about further technological initiatives that include creating a seamless, personalized and touchless travel experience from curb to gate.  

“Imagine the moment when you will be able to enter our airports with no photo ID needed,” Diaz said. “With facial comparison technology, you will be able to do everything from checking in your bags, clearing TSA security and boarding your flight with only one thing…  the smile on your face.” 

“It’s not the future … it has already begun at Bush and Hobby airports,” Diaz said.  

Performing and visual arts 

He also talked about Houston Airports’ outstanding performing and visual arts programs. He called Harmony in the Air “the soundtrack to our passenger experience” and said he was thrilled to report that a newly installed performing stage at Hobby will be replicated at Bush in 2022, and it features a design inspiration based on “world-renowned concert halls.” 

One lesser-known fact is that Houston Airports has one of the largest public art collections in Texas. In 2021, Diaz said that the airport system has expanded the collection by acquiring 74 new artworks, the largest one-time purchase in the city’s history. He said the art buy was an investment in our airports and in Houston’s creative community – many of whom struggled during the pandemic. New “portable” 2D and 3D art is being installed at both airports right now and features some legendary local and state artists.  

Ellington Airport and Houston Spaceport 

He moved on Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport, which has been awash with activity, having attracted three anchor tenants in the past year – Axiom Space, Collins Aerospace and Intuitive Machines. These, and others to come, are the cluster of aerospace companies that will lead the nation in the transition from a government-focused to a commercially driven space program. They come with space-age advancements and will also boost the local economy with thousands of new jobs. 

“I’m thrilled at the momentum we have built at Houston Spaceport,” Diaz said, “and more great things are on the horizon.”  

Closing remarks 

He closed out his annual address with a nod to the Houston Airports team who again displayed unswerving commitment to the community during Winter Storm Uri. 

“As our airport runways froze, the warmth of our service thawed our passengers’ anxieties and fears and brought them immense comfort,” Diaz said.  

“There are hundreds of others who deserve our heartfelt gratitude, whether it was clearing our runways of ice in the dead of night or restoring water service to Hobby Airport at 4 a.m. They embodied the saying ‘We are Houston strong.’” 

He lastly recognized Houston Airports senior staff who he said was responsible for Houston Airports being “the best in the United States” as evidenced by significant honors for Bush and Hobby in the 2021 World Skytrax Awards announced in August. 

“There’s no denying the challenges of these times. but we have made remarkable progress through it all,” Diaz said. “We are focused and determined to continue building forward better in the finest city in the country.”  

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