New International Terminal Opens at Houston Hobby

Jodi Richards
Published in: 

In mid-October, Houston's William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) opened a new terminal, bringing the world of international travel to its passengers. The five-gate facility is the first international terminal for Southwest Airlines, which fully funded and led the development of the project. 

The $146 million, 280,000-square-foot project adds five international gates capable of accommodating aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and A320. Southwest will preferentially lease four of the gates; the fifth is available for other HOU airlines.

Primary Project: New International Terminal 
Supporting Projects: Parking structure & skybridge; central utility plant; roadway improvements 
Location: Houston Hobby Int'l Airport

Cost: $146 million 
Size: 280,000 sq. ft.
Gates: 5
Architect & Designer: Corgan 
Construction: JV Hensel Phelps Construction Co. 
Lead Contractor: CBIC Construction & Development
Seating: Arconas
Crowd Control Equipment: Visiontron

Parking Structure
Cost: $55 million 
General Contractor: SpawGlass Contractors
Parking System: SWARCO Traffic Americas

The recently completed terminal also includes a new Federal Inspection Station, an expanded and reconfigured security checkpoint, a new ticketing hall with additional Southwest ticket counters and additional concessions in the new concourse.

Based on a study commissioned by the Houston Airport System, which owns and operates HOU, the international terminal project will bring in an additional 1.6 million air travelers annually. The study also estimates the project added approximately 10,000 jobs to the region and had an additional $1.6 billion annual impact on the local economy. 

Randy Gillespie, director of airport affairs for Southwest, explains that the airline was looking for its first international opportunity, and HOU stood out as an excellent starting point. "Our acquisition of AirTran Airways enabled us to begin sampling the near-international marketplace," explains Gillespie. "And we identified our strong opportunity in Houston, one of our top domestic bases, where local customers were forced to pay very high airfares for international travel."

Adding service to Latin America and the Caribbean are particularly important to the airline's ongoing evolution, he adds. 

Southwest led the design, construction, procurement and communication for the international terminal project at HOU, which was approved by the city of Houston in May 2012. Under a Letter of Agreement with the Houston Airport System, the airline held all the contracts for the project, specifies Denise McElroy, senior manager of corporate facilities for Southwest Airlines.

"Southwest Airlines worked closely with the city of Houston and the Houston Airport System to create and implement a cohesive design that works seamlessly with the existing terminal and surrounding infrastructure projects," McElroy notes. 

During the terminal project, HOU managed and funded complimentary projects, including construction of a new parking structure and skybridge, roadway improvements and installation of a new central utility plant. 

In addition to its multimillion dollar investment in a new international terminal, Southwest Airlines made a multi-decade commitment to the market with a 25-year use and lease agreement with the Houston Airport System that began in 2013. 

Design & Wayfinding

As lead architect and designer of the new international terminal, Corgan was charged with creating a modern expansion to the existing facility, while also ensuring a seamless integration with the concurrent airport projects, explains Jonathan Massey, a company principal. The goal was to ensure that the various pieces didn't look completely different, he relates. 

Corgan lead series of workshops with the airport and Southwest to explore various architectural options. The input helped the design team "make the facility feel like it was already there - like it was a part of the original architecture," comments Massey.  

Architects tied the look and feel of the two structures together by continuing the roofline from the current facility to the new terminal and carrying some "big architectural gestures" from the existing building to the new, he explains. 

The existing structure's age created challenges during renovations. "There were some unique things done at the time of the previous expansion to accommodate the old structure and old systems, and some of those things proved problematic over the years," says Massey.

One of the problem areas addressed by the project was the security checkpoint. After responding to changing security requirements over the years, HOU had developed a reputation for long security lines. Sometimes passengers waited 45 minutes or more, Massey details. The constrained physical space made it challenging to queue and process passengers in an efficient manner. 

The way the screening machines were positioned and queues were formed made the previous security checkpoint inefficient, adds McElroy. 

With the addition of six new lanes during recent renovations, the checkpoint's capacity increased markedly. In addition to enhancing the processing capacity of the checkpoint, it was also crucial to clarify where passengers needed to flow after screening, notes Massey. With the new layout, passengers pass through the checkpoint and proceed straight ahead to the old gates or turn right to head toward the new.

Color and the orientation of lighting across a wall can draw people's eyes in the direction they need to be traveling, Massey remarks. "In our interior design, we have a lot of focus on guiding the eye of the traveler."

The Corgan team worked diligently to make the terminal as intuitive as possible, he relates. "We're strong believers that space, volume, light, color and material can go a long way in helping people navigate these environments," says Massey. For example, designers used a consistently muted background palette for materials on walls, ceilings and floors in much of the concourse, but changed the materials around restrooms. The visual difference draws visitors' attention and helps them find the facilities without relying on signs, Massey explains. 

While aspects such as restrooms, holdrooms and ticketing areas are standard design components for Southwest projects, some elements at HOU represented new territory for the airline. The Federal Inspection Station, for instance, was the first it has built. With six passport inspection stations and three international baggage claim devices, the station at HOU can process up to 800 arriving passengers during peak travel times.

"So this was a learning curve for us," McElroy notes. "Working closely with both federal and local CBP (Customs and Border Protection) personnel was a critical piece of the project."

Designing a terminal for both domestic and international operations was another first for Southwest. By employing swing gates, the airline can operate an international flight alongside a domestic one. "That was all new to us, too," McElroy adds.

Despite the new ground Southwest was treading, it finished the project on time and $10 million under the original $156 million budget. 

Stretching the Budget

In general, Massey describes the new concourse as a "fairly simple, straightforward space that has a very clear materiality." By keeping the structure basic and creating standardized portals that various concessionaires plug into helps individual offerings really stand out, Massey explains. "The building doesn't compete with the concessions and the restrooms, because those are the things we want people to find," he elaborates.

Using relatively basic architectural and design elements also provides cost savings in construction, Massey adds. "You don't need to spend a lot of money to have somebody naturally look in a direction. That could be as simple as a paint color. The (HOU) facility is quite cost-effective in its construction," he reports.

According to Massey, structure and volume, as well as phasing, largely drive the cost of terminals. "Our ethos is to put the money where it counts - put the structure and the volume and the big expression in places where a lot of people are going to see it and that it serves a purpose. That enhances wayfinding and helps people understand where to go," he informs.

"The rest of the building is kind of a backdrop, and it lets us control cost in a very appropriate way. (At HOU), the focus was on passenger flows and spending money in the right place."

To help control costs in the future, the new facility was engineered to be flexible for growth, when and if it's needed. Currently a five-gate concourse, the facility has the ability to accommodate seven additional gates. "We did a design solution that could be mirrored to the other side [of the ticket wing] if they ever choose to do so," notes Massey.

The Customs and Border Protection facility was also designed with integrated flexibility. Raised access flooring was used under self-service kiosks so more kiosks can be added and/or modified over time. Similarly, the Federal Inspection Station was designed to process up to 800 passengers per hour; but one wall can be bumped out to expand the facility for more capacity, notes McElroy.

Improved Amenities

The entire length of the new ticketing hall provides passengers with more curbside access to help improve the flow of vehicle traffic. A secondary road allows commercial vehicles to drop off passengers on the lower level, which takes volume pressure off of the upper roadway, 
McElroy reports. 

With the addition of international counters in the new ticketing hall, Southwest now has twice as many ticket counter positions as before.

Previously, the airline's ticket counters were located in the path of the corridor that connected the existing terminal to the new facility. To reduce the impact to travelers, the new ticket hall was constructed first and opened six weeks earlier than the rest of the facility, on September 1. This allowed the construction team to move the ticket counters into the new facility, demolish the old area and then tie the two buildings together, McElroy explains. The entire new ticketing facility opened on October 15. 

Self-tagging at the ticket counter is a new amenity designed to expedite the check-in process at HOU. In the Federal Inspection Station and Customs area, automatic passport control kiosks and Global Entry kiosks provide more automation for passengers traveling through the new facility. In the gate area, passengers can now find an electrical outlet at every other seat. More cup holders were added as well.  

Supporting Elements

To make room for the new facility, designers had to relocate the airport police department, TSA offices and some airport administration offices. 

In support of and in conjunction with Southwest's work, HOU designed and built a roadway that connects a new parking garage (also designed and built by the airport) to the new terminal. The $55 million parking structure, located along the northwest corner of an existing parking garage, provides more than 2,500 new parking spaces, an automated parking space locator system from SWARCO, and a third-floor pedestrian bridge to the terminal.

The roadway modification project, to support the new international terminal and multi-level parking garage, began in September 2013. The project added a new entry road to accommodate the new garage, an elevated roadway and an extension of the drop-off curb.

In addition to making exterior upgrades, HOU also installed a new central utility plant with a tunnel running from it under the new terminal.  



2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement

Giving back to the community is central to what Charlotte Douglas International Airport and its operator, the City of Charlotte Aviation Department, is about, and last year was no different. 

Throughout 2022, while recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, we continued our efforts to have a positive impact on the Charlotte community. Of particular note, we spent the year sharing stories of how Connections Don't Just Happen at the Terminal - from creating homeownership and employment opportunities to supporting economic growth through small-business development and offering outreach programs to help residents understand the Airport better.

This whitepaper highlights the construction projects, initiatives, programs and events that validate Charlotte Douglas as a premier airport.

Download the whitepaper: 2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement.



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