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...

Many regional airports are spiffing up their facilities to attract more corporate aircraft and the businesses that serve them. Lone Star Executive, for example, is expanding one of its two runways and will begin building a new control tower this summer. Last year, Pearland Regional Airport built a new runway and a full-length taxiway.

Scholes International Airport at Galveston completed $17 million in improvements last year that included a control tower and plans to build 30 new hangars in October.

These airports are seeing gains in two key measures of activity -- flight operations and fuel sales.

At Scholes, flight operations -- takeoffs and landings -- have increased about 5 percent each year, said airport director Hud Hopkins. Sixty-one percent of operations are helicopters used by offshore oil industries, making the airport the busiest heliport in Texas, he said.

At Lone Star Executive the growth is evident in rising fuel sales, up 20 percent over the past five years at the facility, said airport director Jeff Bilyeu.

And Sugar Land Regional, which has a new 20,000-square-foot terminal, saw annual fuel sales grow to 2.5 million gallons last year, up from 900,000 gallons 10 years ago, said Joe Esch, the city's executive director for Business and Intergovernmental Relations.

A better highway

In many ways, improving airports is similar to building a better highway to meet commuting demands or building a business park to expand business, said Clark of the Houston-Galveston Council.

The council plans to update a decade-old airport system study of the Houston region to look at the needs of small airports in a 13-county area as they become more business- and less recreation-oriented, Clark said.

The study is long overdue, said McLemore of the Houston Airport System.

"We're interested in making sure they survive and we support the development of airports in the region," he said.

The eastern part of the Houston region is perhaps the most underserved area in terms of general aviation, transportation officials say. Clark said there has been some discussion with the FAA about the need for airports in the area to serve the Port of Houston and petrochemical industry.

Recreation market

With growth moving to the west, privately owned Houston Executive Airport is steadily gaining some altitude. The recently opened airport has about 50 flight operations during the week and up to 80 on the weekends, airport officials said.

Clark said the number of weekend flights suggests the facility is currently being used more for recreation than corporate travel. But its business plan is aimed at serving corporate planes traveling worldwide, Henriksen said.

Houston Executive has started construction on a 48,000-square-foot service center scheduled to open in 2008. This will feature a 26,000-square-foot hangar, business center, crew lounge and weather briefing room, and other amenities for pilots and travelers.

Lance LaCour, president and chief executive officer of the Katy Area Economic Develop-

ment Council, said he believes the service center will draw clients in the quickly growing area.

Sugar Land Regional Airport, about 30 miles southeast of Houston Executive, wants to keep a competitive edge by expanding its single runway facility, which is capable of handling jets as large as a Boeing 737 or MD-80.

Sugar Land spokeswoman Barbara Brescian said the city is interested in purchasing the adjacent Central Prison Unit to build a business park catering to aviation businesses. The city-owned airport is hemmed in by a park and two highways.

"We would really like the opportunity to have more business growth, and we don't have that right now because our business park is almost full," Brescian said.

Recent legislation calls for a study on closing the prison and selling the land.

Clark said it is important to strengthen and preserve existing airports whenever possible because it's so hard to build one with sprawling development.

"Once you lose them, you can't replace them," he said.


Chronicle reporters Helen Eriksen, Eric Hanson, Ruth Rendon, Harvey Rice and Richard Stewart contributed to this report.

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