United celebrates $2.6 billion redevelopment at Bush Airport, but Houston City Controller has yet to clear project for takeoff

Construction for the Terminal B expansion project will not start until the Houston City Council signs off on the city’s initial contribution of $150 million, which it cannot do because outgoing city controller Chris Brown has not approved the funding. He says more due diligence is needed.

United Airlines Bush Airport
Lucio Vasquez/Houston Public Media
Pictured is a United Airlines check-in area at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on Feb. 20, 2020.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner joined United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby on Thursday for a ground-breaking ceremony at Bush Intercontinental Airport, where they celebrated a $2.6 billion redevelopment project to expand the amenities and passenger capacity in Terminal B.

But no ground was actually broken, and that likely will not happen until the start of 2024. A spokesperson for the Chicago-based airline confirmed Friday that construction for the project will not commence until the Houston City Council signs off on an initial $150 million contribution, which is part of the city's total planned commitment of $624 million.

The council has so far been unable to do so, because City Controller Chris Brown has yet to approve the proposed funding. A spokesperson for Houston's chief financial officer, whose second and final term expires at the end of December, said Friday that Brown continues to have concerns about the city's long-term ability to provide the funding and wants to see an updated feasibility study before giving his stamp of approval.

"My office has been steadfast in requesting an updated feasibility study regarding the financing for the Terminal B redevelopment project," Brown said Friday in a statement to Houston Public Media. "The Houston Airport System (HAS) has acknowledged the process to update the feasibility study is underway. Until then, I will continue to advocate for increased due diligence around the agreement."

Turner, who also is term-limited and will leave the mayor's office at the end of this year, has criticized Brown's lack of approval as politically motivated, saying the proposed funding is available. He also has championed the planned terminal redevelopment project at the city's largest airport, which includes the expansion of 40 gates, a new baggage-handling system and United Club as well as the creation of thousands of construction jobs.

The city council, even though it could not vote on the funding piece without Brown's approval, authorized a memorandum of agreement with the airline company on Nov. 15.

"Houston is a premier, world-class destination deserving of a state-of-the-art facility to welcome individuals traveling to our city," Turner said in a Thursday news release from United. "The expansion of Terminal B is physical proof of United's ongoing commitment to the economic vitality of the City of Houston. We are grateful for United, one of the city's largest employers, for creating nearly 4,000 new jobs for our community and enhancing the growing demand for domestic and international travel globally."

Part of the airline's "United Next" growth plan, the Terminal B redevelopment will increase its passenger capacity by 40% by 2026, according to United. The plan is to create a three-level, 765,000-square foot concourse on the north side of Terminal B with 22 narrow-body gates, along with converting 30 existing gates for small regional jets on the south side into 18 gates that can accommodate larger planes.

United also plans to build two concession hubs with more than 115,000 square feet of space for food and retail vendors, the aforementioned United Club and baggage-handling system, a sensory room for passengers with disabilities and expanded curbside and roadway capacity with a ground-level check-in area and a traffic bypass so travelers leaving the airport can exit without having to drive past Terminal A.

As part of Thursday's event, United also announced plans to add direct flights from Houston to Georgetown, Guyana, and unveiled its new Airbus A321neo, which made its inaugural flight from Houston and is one of 800 new planes that will join United's fleet between this year and 2032.

"United Airlines is committed to providing the best travel experience to our customers and that includes investing in the ($2.6 billion) redevelopment of our Houston hub," the airline said in a statement. "We are eager for the Houston City Council to approve their portion of the project, so we can deliver on the numerous benefits to our customers and employees. We extend our gratitude to Mayor Turner for his support of the project and United's continued investment in the city of Houston."