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 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.

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.

renee.lee@chron.com

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

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