Houston’s Big Airport Turns 40

It was forty years ago this week that Houston Intercontinental Airport, as it was known back then, opened its terminals and runways for the first time. The big airport in far north Harris County has grown a lot since then, but the people who were there four decades ago say they still remember that day well. Jack Williams reports.


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“It really doesn’t seem like 40 years to me because that would make me what I am, 86 years old and I don’t feel a day over 50 right now.” 

Former airline executive and pilot A.J. High doesn’t look much older than that either. He was the first to land at the brand new airport 40 years ago, touching down in a Trans Texas Airways DC-9.

“We had looked forward to this airport for so long.  This was the first time that the city fathers had looked more than five years ahead. After 40 years, we can see that they definitely did look further than five years.”  

It was an important time for Houston. The Astrodome had been build a few years before and Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon about a month after the airport opened. David Robertson was five years old at the time. He’s now the airport’s operations coordinator.

“It was unlike any other airport I had every seen. My family and I traveled a lot even when I was young and the round flight stations, the rotundas that kind of looked like the Astrodome on the inside and again the Astrodome had opened recently, Astro-World had just opened. There was a whole bunch of growth at that time and it was just exciting. It seemed like every few months we were getting to go to some new thing  in Houston and the airport was a big piece of that.” 

Sam Ashmore helped open the $10 million airport in 1969 and remembers the last minute panic as operations were transferred from Hobby Airport literally overnight.

“The terminal was just about this full with people, except they had  hard hats and very worried looks on their faces because remember back in those days, at least this was my first time to have to move operations from one airport to another airport after you closed down on Saturday night, be ready to operate on Sunday morning at this airport.” 

Houston Congressman Gene Green grew up on the city’s north side and remembers the days when the airport was in the middle of nowhere. He says it’s now a huge part of the local economy.

“For those that are native Houstonians, when it was built it was called Conroe International, because the joke was it was closer to Conroe than it was to Houston. Obviously that is no longer the case. Houston has grown to Conroe. It’s an economic generator in North Harris County. What we’ve seen from literally the last 40 years, you go around the airport, you’ll see the growth, even in a tough economy, additional warehousing space, air travel and air cargo is expanding.”    

In 1969, Intercontinental featured two terminals, A and B, with a total of about 40 gates. Today, there are more than 120 gates at five terminals. In 2008, the airport served more than 43-million passengers. 

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