Houston Terminal Makes the Grade

The ABCs of airport terminal design might go something like this: A is for airy, airport hold room that passengers want to spend time in; B is for bigger, better and brighter space; and C is for countless concessions and creature comforts.

And if that is how it goes, it is clear that United Airlines boned up on its ABCs when it renovated Terminal B at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH). The new $95 million terminal, dedicated to United Express regional flights, is four times the size, offers 17 times the number of concessionaires, and features a spacious hold room with twice the seating and many, many more restrooms.

“This project is about improving the entire customer experience,” says Kate Gebo, United Airlines vice president of corporate real estate. “Terminal B was built with more of the features our customers told us they value. Our customers said they wanted better concessions, better connectivity, and a better place to relax in before their flights.”

The first phase of this project—15 completed gates—opened for business May 21. The airline will add 15 additional gates by year’s end. When complete, Terminal B will serve as the airline’s primary Houston facility for United Express flights operated by its regional partners (ExpressJet, SkyWest, Trans States and Shuttle America), which dispatch more than 300 flights from IAH daily.


New Lease, New Look

It’s safe to say that before renovations resurrected Terminal B and gave it a fresh and contemporary look, the space had seen better days. “It had been built in 1969, and it looked like it had been built in 1969,” says Gebo.

The dark, tight and cramped space had reached maximum capacity and lacked customer amenities, having just one concessionaire and a single men’s and lady’s restroom. Its two satellite pods were designed to accommodate narrow body aircraft, which was neither efficient nor effective for today’s airlines. It was, frankly, “tired, old and outdated,” says Mario Diaz, IAH director.

“After 42 years of existence it was in serious need of an upgrade … everything from baggage handling areas, passenger seating, electrical, plumbing, and cooling systems needed an update,” Diaz says.

Airport and city officials began discussions about giving the dingy, outdated terminal a sleek new look in 2008. In 2010, all parties involved agreed to a public-private partnership, or P3, where the city would pay $62 million for a new apron, ramp and taxiway and United would fund up to $100 million for an interior revamp as part of a new 20-year lease with IAH.


It’s Easy Being Green

Post Crescent Blogger Nick Mueller recently penned that a “sustainable building” doesn’t really feel like a building at all. Glass walls, he writes, allow for panoramic views and natural sunlight that streams in at every angle; paints and coatings have little to no smell, so fresh clean air is abundant; and building materials come from nearby sources.

His words certainly ring true in the new Terminal B. It’s bright, it’s airy and it’s sustainable. When all is said and done, United Airlines hopes to attain Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for the project.

The new terminal is expected to consume 21 percent less energy than a conventionally built building by utilizing a daylight harvesting system that supplements interior lighting levels; a light shelf in the passenger hold room that reflects daylight deep into the interior; high-efficiency cooling equipment; and high-value insulation in the walls and roof.

Other energy-saving measures include: a building management system that senses both temperature and lighting conditions to produce only what’s required; a cool roof system that reflects 76 percent of the potential heat gain from sunlight; low-flow plumbing fixtures that reduce water usage by 40 percent; and building materials using at least 20 percent recycled content with no or low VOC content to improve indoor air quality.


Contemporary Concessions

The new, 225,000-square-foot space connected to the main processing area that passengers enter is elevated with 28-foot-high windows providing a look at the vistas outside. Embedded in this spacious hold room are 17 food, beverage and retail areas, so that when passengers are seated they are just “a foot or two away from concessions,” says Diaz. This allows passengers to grab a bite to eat or shop without fear of missing a flight.

Gebo says the airline responded to customer requests for high-quality dining and shopping experiences and selected concessions with that in mind. “We are pleased to introduce first-time airport concessions from well-known restaurants that offer variations on Texas flavors, along with established airport concession brands that are already popular with customers.”

Houston Chef Bryan Caswell’s 3rd Bar Oyster & Eating House and Chef Johnny Hernandez’ The Fruiteria lead the dining options, which are rounded out with Texas icon Whataburger, Bullrito’s fresh Tex-Mex, and Barcuterie’s cured meats and classic cheeses. Familiar favorites such as the Fresh Gourmet Marketplace and Starbucks also can be found. “We felt it was important to balance the local flavor and give people a little taste of Houston as they pass through the airport,” Gebo says.


Grab a Seat

Three seating arrangements were selected for the space: Traditional linear seating, where every other seat in the row has power; cluster seating, where three seats are arranged back to back with a small “end table” in between, and every seat has power; and a power bar arrangement. “Overall approximately 50 percent of the seats [in the new terminal] are powered,” says Martin Sharp, international manager, North and South America, Zoeftig, the firm that supplied the seating for this terminal. “The industry has caught on that power is desired and that it’s time to get away from rows and rows of linear seats. Humans don’t like sitting next to other humans they don’t know,” he explains. “People will naturally sit in every other seat; cluster seating increases the seating available because all of the seats are being used.”

Because customers said access to plugs and WiFi was important, WiFi access is free and available throughout the terminal and 50 percent of the seats offer plug-ins for wireless devices. These amenities also benefit the airport itself, says Diaz. Passengers must create an account with the airport when they sign into the system and provide basic information such as name, address and email. The airport plans to use that database to drive a frequent flyer program that offers discounts on parking, concessions and VIP lounges. The system will also gather information from customers on the good, the bad and the ugly of airport operations, which will allow the airport to fine-tune operations, promote positive experiences and mitigate negative ones.

United incorporated a new gate layout and boarding lane design in the terminal to improve boarding times and reduce crowding. The area incorporates a new pier construction which to envision, Stephanie Buchanan, vice president IAH Hub, United Airlines, says to hold up the palm of your hand and three fingers. The palm, she says, is the main concourse area where hold room seating and concessions are located, while each finger is a pier, and each pier has 10 gates. At the mouth of the pier is a boarding door and that’s where passengers pass though with their boarding pass. They then take an escalator down and follow signage to board their flight. “This is more like a central boarding area, almost like a train station,” she says. “There are boarding doors where customers go down to the three ‘fingers’ where the gates actually are.”

With this design, passengers spend more time in the pleasing hold room area and United is able to be more flexible with its aircraft gating and staffing.

All of these features add up to a project that meets the airport’s and airline’s objectives for terminal design, and one that passengers will likely give high marks to as they pass through. “Passengers spend as much time in the airport as they do on a flight,” says Gebo. “With this project, we found ways to give some of their time back to them.”