Houston Hobby Replaces Aging Terminal

Jodi Richards
Published in: 

Planning for the renovation currently underway at William P. Hobby Airport began in the mid-1990s. At the time, the 40-year-old terminal was handling roughly 8 million passengers and was already in need of updates. Fast-forward to 2006 when the City of Houston Department of Aviation, which operates and maintains the airport, embarked on a $250 million renovation and modernization program designed to meet future demand while also preserving Hobby's character.

Facts & Figures

Project: Terminal Renovation

Location: William P. Hobby Airport (Houston)

Cost: $250 million

Concourse Construction Manager at Risk: Clark Construction Group

Baggage Claim General Contractor: Clark Construction Group

In-Bound Baggage System: G&S Airport Conveyor

Outbound Baggage System & EDS: Vanderlande

Of Note: New terminal was built on top of existing facility

"This airport is convenient and has a charm about it," says Ross Underhill, Houston Hobby's operations manager. "That's what our passengers, customers like about it. And we're able to retain that convenience and charm even with the construction."

Construction associated with the Hobby Renovation Program began in 2006, relates Marlene McClinton, public information officer for the Houston Airport System (HAS). Substantial completion is expected late this year.

Phase One of the project, reports McClinton, cost $130 million and included: demolition of the existing terminals; construction of the new central concourse; design and construction of a connector bridge; construction of five new gates and passenger loading bridges; apron work; and relocating the airport's radio navigation system to the roof.

Phase Two, totaling $120 million, included redesign and construction of the ticket lobby as well as redesign and construction of the baggage claim area - including floors, walls, ceilings, lighting, fire alarms, signage, rental car counters, signage and restrooms.

Dynamic Design

The details of the renovation program have been reworked over time to adapt to changes in security requirements and the ever-evolving landscape of the airline business, Underhill notes. For example, plans originally called for a terminal building with east and west wings and a total of 32 gates. New security requirements following 9/11 and airline mergers prompted a redesign with a central concourse, a single security checkpoint and only 25 gates.

When planning began, "It was a much different security world," relates Underhill. Back then, the focus was improving customer service without changing the basic footprint. The airport's new layout, he adds, is flexible, with designs in place for an additional east or west concourse with more gates if needed.

Because Houston Hobby's terminal building is landlocked by roads and aviation businesses, expansion had to occur within the constraints of the existing terminal. "And we wanted to maintain our charm, convenience and the type of airport we are a low-cost domestic airport," Underhill adds.

The number of passengers at Hobby has remained steady since the mid-1990s at about 8 million. Thanks to the renovation, the terminal can now comfortably handle 12 million to 15 million passengers, Underhill says, and should suffice until 2020. "In between now and then, we'll look at our passenger activity levels and see if we need to design and add," he says.

Renovation Challenges

Remodeling "in place," as Underhill calls it, posed challenges. A flexible design and tight-knit team under a construction manager at risk format, he notes, allowed the airport to make changes throughout the project. The ability to adjust strategies was particularly important as the team encountered surprises while building the new terminal on top of an aging facility.

Houston Hobby's $250 million renovation project updates an aging facility with higher ceilings and a more open feel, while preserving the character of the terminal.

"We uncovered a lot of stuff and had to go back to redesign several times in order to incorporate the findings - whether it was a utility or a special function," he explains.

Communicating with air carriers and service providers was a priority. "We've worked really well to keep them informed so that they could make conscious decisions as to what they truly needed versus what was originally thought back in 1996," Underhill explains.

Security changes after 9/11 delayed the project by almost two years, he notes. And the airport is still redesigning to accommodate new processes and equipment.

Orchestrating work in an operating terminal, Underhill notes, was a "constant coordination project" between all parties - design engineers, contractors, airport staff, airlines and passengers. Phasing and the length of the project aided in minimizing the impact to the traveling public.

Working around passenger traffic involved careful scheduling and phasing, he relates. Limits were set regarding how much of the terminal was and is under construction at one time. "We have to have a certain amount of flow back and forth and (facilitate) getting to the checkpoints, ticket counters," he says. "So you might have to build a door to take a door out of service." Work that could affect passengers and airport staff with noise and/or odors was scheduled at night.

During Phase Two, a second baggage claim area was constructed so the original baggage claim could be renovated. Underhill says the temporary facility is tight, but functional, with three claim devices as opposed to its regular four. "The airlines are working with us and we're making it work," he notes. "We had to be able to shut it down in order to remodel it totally."

Curbside check-in has been recessed to reclaim sidewalks for customers walking in front of the building. Inside, the terminal features higher ceilings, plenty of glass and a much more open feeling. A terminal management system helps regulate utilities throughout the facility.

The new terminal is non-preferential use, allowing operators to use any gate or counter whenever the primary air carrier on that facility is not using it.

Hobby's concessions are also being updated during the renovation project. All of the airport's concessions except for two are currently located post-security. As construction draws to a close, that will change and some concepts will be pulled back outside the secure area to accommodate meeters and greeters.

The airpor's extensive art program, including this piece depicting a human figure flying with open arms, is designed to promote the region and provide entertainment for travelers.

Art in the Terminal

To prevent Hobby from becoming a "plain vanilla" terminal, HAS officials worked to spice up the renovated space with an extensive art program that includes window art, permanent sculptures and children's art.

"It's a way of promoting the local region," Underhill explains. "It's also a way of reducing stress for the traveling public. It provides somewhat of a diversion, and it's entertaining."

HAS's art director coordinated with the City of Houston Civic Art program to fund an installation for the space above the new escalators leading to the baggage claim area. The Italian artist who designed the piece - a human figure flying with open arms - moved to Houston to oversee its construction and installation, reports McClinton.

Upholding Tradition

Throughout renovations, officials strived to keep passengers informed and maintain the customer service that has earned the airport several industry awards. In 2008, Hobby was named "Best Airport by Size" and among the "Best Airports Worldwide for the North America Region" during the Airports Council International's Service Quality Awards.

"We're not dropping our level of service," notes Underhill. "We're working around our construction and keeping people apprised of what's going on."

The airport's Houston Friendly program promotes customer service by recognizing airport employees for "going the extra mile." The program, notes Underhill, includes employees of the airlines, concessions, rental car companies, and hotels.


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