A flurry of airport expansions aim for corporate customers: TRANSPORTATION

Jun. 17--Brian Wing and his partner, Jim Kelly, look back at their decision nine years ago to move their Gulfstream jet from Bush Intercontinental Airport to a small airport in Conroe as one of their best moves. Today, the pair has the largest...


Jun. 17--Brian Wing and his partner, Jim Kelly, look back at their decision nine years ago to move their Gulfstream jet from Bush Intercontinental Airport to a small airport in Conroe as one of their best moves.

Today, the pair has the largest general aviation business based at Lone Star Executive Airport -- Wing Aviation. The company, with 160 employees, caters to business travelers and corporate jet owners who want to avoid the hassles of airline travel.

"We moved up here because of convenience," said Wing, president of the company. "Departing became too unpredictable at Houston."

Capacity restraints at major airports such as Bush and Hobby can make it hard for private- and corporate-owned jets to gain runway access. Such delays burn valuable time and fuel.

A flurry of airport expansions is taking place in the Houston region to serve the growing corporate travel market. This trend is helping transform airports that had been more focused on recreational flyers into economic centers.

It has been more than 20 years since there has been so much demand for expansion of small airports and development of new ones in the region, said Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning group. This reflects both rising business travel and population growth.

Bush and Hobby have the land and runways to handle more smaller aircraft, but doing so would cause delays to "skyrocket" and create safety issues, both of which are unacceptable to the major airlines and the public, said Kent McLemore, assistant director of aviation and manager of the planning division of the Houston Airport System, which manages those airports.

The two major airports offer limited general aviation services to smaller planes with specialized instruments, but Bush and Hobby mainly serve airlines and corporate jets. For years, small-aircraft owners have been encouraged to use facilities at the system's Ellington Field or surrounding regional airports, McLemore said.

In Texas, small airports contribute $8.7 billion to the state's economy, according to a 2005 economic impact study published in 2006 by the Texas Department of Transportation's Aviation Division. The number is based on the value of all goods, services and capital spending in the state that can be tied to general aviation.

These estimates look at both the direct benefits around airports and their value to businesses that depend on air service. In 2001 that total was $5.9 billion.

The study uses different multipliers for each industry linked to aviation to determine the total economic impact. But in general, for every dollar spent on an airport in terms of capital projects or improvement, it is estimated that another dollar is spent in the community or region.

"The economic impact is big," said Linda Howard, director of planning and programming for the TxDOT Aviation Division. "For Fortune 500 companies, having access to an airport is a major consideration. It's one of the things they look at when expanding or moving.

Close to their destination

These regional airports appeal to travelers looking to land close to their destination, and they help major commercial airports manage overflow. These facilities typically have one or two runways at least 4,000 feet long and instrument landing systems.

Some have air traffic control towers and aviation businesses that provide services, including aircraft maintenance and storage, charter services, meeting and lounge spaces, and flight instruction.

Houston-area businessman Ron Henriksen, the developer of the Houston Executive Airport in Waller County, which opened in January, says the airport will serve businesses in the Energy Corridor.

While the corporate jet business is growing, some say it will be a challenge for Houston Executive Airport to woo clients in the face of strong competition from nearby airports.

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