Airports

International terminal work at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport to be done by 2025

Part of the new Mickey Leland International Terminal opened within the last month. The $1.43 billion project, under construction since 2018, is expected to be completed by next January, an airport leader says.

Bush Airport International Terminal
Houston Airport System
A traveler walks through a hallway lined with artwork inside the renovated Mickey Leland International Terminal on Dec. 26, 2023, at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.

International air travel can be a hassle, and that has been especially true at Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Construction started in 2018 on a $1.43 billion redevelopment of the international terminal at Houston's largest airport, which has remained open throughout. So millions upon millions of passengers have had to navigate around closed roadways and concourses while dealing with long lines and congestion both inside and outside the building – all while being in the midst of a construction zone.

It has been painful for travelers, and even those just trying to drop-off or pick up family members. Local media have done numerous stories about the stress and occasional agony the project has caused for those using the airport.

Now, though, those who fly into and out of Intercontinental likely can see some light at the end of a long jetway. Part of the new Mickey Leland International Terminal was completed and unveiled within the last month, according to Houston Airport System director Mario Diaz, who said the lounge and vendors areas are open and beautified by new furniture, ceilings, flooring, lighting and decorative artwork.

Diaz said new parking areas are expected to open within the next month, with a series of new international gates slated to be finished in the spring and a new ticketing and baggage center, accompanied by a covered outside area where passengers will enter and exit the terminal, expected to be done in the fall. All the work, which also includes new underground infrastructure, should be finished by January 2025, Diaz said.

"This is really about solving problem after problem after problem and moving construction slowly through in a way that has minimal impact on travelers and traffic and delivers as quickly as possible the benefits that I think the passengers will all agree that, once it's finished, are well worth it," Diaz said. "We have gotten tremendous positive feedback on the way the terminal looks right now. (The airlines) are all really, really delighted with the way the terminal is functioning right now.

"As time progresses," he added, "you're going to see a diminution of impediments to passengers."

Bush Airport Baggage Handling System
Houston Airport System
A new baggage handling system is installed at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on Dec. 5, 2023.

The international terminal redevelopment project, the largest capital investment in Houston's northernmost airport since it opened in 1969, aims to accommodate future growth of both the airport and the city it serves while relieving traffic congestion and improving the baggage handling system. Diaz said another goal of the Houston Airport System, which is an arm of the city government, is to earn a 5-star rating from Skytrax after Hobby Airport in south Houston became the first in North America to receive such a distinction.

The initiative at Bush has been in the works for nearly a decade, with Diaz saying some initial efforts began back in 2015. He said it's taken so long to complete because needed space first had to be secured from United Airlines, a major operator at the airport, and also because of the logistics associated with constructing in a largely confined area as business otherwise continues as usual for airlines and their traveling customers.

"We have to keep the international terminal open as we're constructing these facilities," he said.

Bush Airport IPC
Houston Airport System
Pictured is the under-construction international central processor, where travelers will purchase tickets and check in baggage, at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on Oct. 25, 2023.

Travelers likely have seen signs of progress in recent months, including the installation of a series of giant leaf-shaped trusses that will be part of the canopy outside the terminal. And in the newly opened common area inside, there are locally created pieces of art as well as regular musical performances as part of the airport's "Harmony in the Air" program that features local musicians in genres such as jazz, pop, international and classical music.

"It really graces this building. It's beautiful," Diaz said. "The artwork we have on the walls and the performers doing their work within the terminal on an almost daily basis is being very, very well-received by the passengers. They're really starting to understand the benefits and they're liking it."

Among the next features to be completed are six new gates for wide-body aircraft, nearly doubling the capacity in the international terminal. Three of the forthcoming gates will be operated by United and the other three will be used by new international carriers, according to Diaz, who said the airport system is in discussions with multiple airlines who want to add services in Houston.

The gates should be ready for use by the end of April, Diaz said.

Bush Airport International Terminal
Houston Airport System
Pictured is an exterior wall for the new D West Pier of the Mickey Leland International Terminal at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on Nov. 20, 2023.

"Today, at peak operations, we have no more gates," he said. "We have no more gates available for any international airlines that may want to come in."

Airlines that operate at Intercontinental will ultimately pay for the redevelopment project through fees and service charges, according to Diaz, who said it was financed by the airport system's enterprise fund.

When the work is finally completed, it should not only result in a more seamless and enjoyable experience for travelers, airline operators and their employees, but also might give people a better impression of Houston when they arrive from places all around the world.

The already diverse and international city might see an influx of foreign travelers in 2026, when Houston will host soccer games as part of the FIFA World Cup.

"I'm very, very optimistic about the future of the airport system," Diaz said. "We should all be very optimistic about the economy of the city of Houston."