With Southwest and Allegiant doubling down on Hobby Airport, the travel hub continues to grow. Image via fly2houston.com

In the estimation of frequent flier Chris Martin, Houston's continually expanding William P. Hobby Airport soars as an "exciting and excellent" hub for business travelers.

Martin is senior vice president of global business development in the Houston office of travel agency Wings Travel Management and one of the leaders of the Houston-based Texas Business Travel Association. He says Hobby Airport's location — seven miles southeast of downtown Houston — and its low-cost flight options hold great appeal for business travelers, especially those with tight travel budgets. And that appeal continues to grow, thanks in part to initiatives at Hobby undertaken by Southwest and Allegiant airlines.

On January 8, Dallas-based Southwest, the No. 1 carrier at Hobby as measured by passenger traffic, unveiled a $125 million, 240,000-square-foot maintenance complex at the airport. It's the largest maintenance facility in Southwest's network. The complex includes a 140,000-square-foot hangar for aircraft maintenance.

"The new hangar continues to showcase our dedication to Houston," Southwest spokesman Dan Landson says. "We've grown continuously over the last several years, and we see more growth in our future, which the hangar will help facilitate."

Southwest's new maintenance complex speeds up airline operations in Houston and helps "get travelers on their way more quickly," Landson says.

At the public debut of the maintenance complex, Southwest Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly told reporters that the airline plans to add a "significant" number of flights at Hobby over the next five to 10 years. He suggested that Houston's beefed-up flight schedule could include brand-new routes to South America.

"We see a lot of opportunity to continue growing," Landson says, "and linking Houston to the places that our customers want to go — whether domestically or internationally."

Today, Southwest offers nearly 200 flights a day from Hobby to almost 70 destinations in the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Hobby opened a $156 million, five-gate international concourse in October 2015.

Six days after Southwest took the wraps off its new maintenance complex, low-cost airline Allegiant said that beginning this May, it's launching seasonal twice-weekly service at Hobby with nonstop flights to Asheville, North Carolina; Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Florida; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Savannah, Georgia. No airlines at Hobby currently serve those destinations.

Allegiant will become the fourth airline to operate at Hobby. Aside from Southwest, American and Delta airlines currently fly out of Hobby, but Southwest is the only one with international service. Last year, JetBlue shifted its Houston operations from Hobby to the larger George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

In 2018, Hobby served almost 14.48 million passengers, up 7.7 percent from 2017 and surpassing 14 million for the first time. Figures for 2019 aren't available yet.

Any increase in passenger traffic at Hobby would certainly be propelled by time-constrained business travelers. In a ranking released January 29 by personal finance website FinanceBuzz, Hobby flies into the top spot on the list of the best U.S. airports if you're running late for a departing flight. To come up with the ranking, FinanceBuzz looked at data for the country's 45 busiest airports.

FinanceBuzz says Hobby's low average wait time at security checkpoints, just under 14 minutes, contributed to its No. 1 ranking.

"The chances of catching Hobby at its busiest are pretty low, and its relatively small number of departing passengers each day helps the airport from getting bogged down with too many travelers," FinanceBuzz reports. "While it's lower percentage of on-time flights might hinder those who are punctual, [this] can be the difference between catching or missing a flight for those running late."

By comparison, Bush Intercontinental ranked eighth on FinanceBuzz's list of the worst U.S. airports if you're running late. It's weighed down by an average 25-minute wait at security checkpoints, according to FinanceBuzz.

"Once you get through security, you've got the sixth-largest terminal on our list to navigate, which puts this airport as one of the worst for late travelers," FinanceBuzz reports of Bush Intercontinental.

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3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.

Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.