This is the second consecutive year the airport has won the award. Photo courtesy of Houston Airport System

While this has been a harrowing and surreal year for the airline industry due to the global pandemic, one local mainstay has soared. Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport has been named 2020 Airport of the Year by the Transportation Security Administration.

This is the second consecutive year that IAH has won the TSA's Airport of the Year title. The award recognizes the best of TSA with outstanding team achievements in key operations and mission support functions, according to a press release.

To be selected as top in the U.S., the airport must show measurable improvements, superior performance, notable innovation, and significant operational improvements in support of TSA's mission, per the TSA. Awardees, per the TSA, demonstrate "a clear commitment to improving workforce engagement and morale." (Something we all look for during airport screenings.)

"The TSA team in Houston consists of more than 1100 employees from frontline TSA officers to inspectors, canine handlers, explosives experts, managers, program analysts and a host of others who work together every single day of the year to ensure that we protect the traveling public to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce," said Juan Sanchez, TSA's Federal Security Director for IAH, in a statement.

"Our team comprised of TSA officers and others demonstrate their commitment daily through their hard work, professionalism and commitment."

IAH boasts some 20,000 employees and more than 800 federal, state, and local stakeholder groups that work in conjunction with the airport and the Houston Police Department. The airport was also lauded for maintaining its "operational tempo" during COVID.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

This new service helps customers get simple, fast answers for travel questions at the airport. Photo courtesy of United Airlines

United Airlines launches new service to help travelers skip the lines at Bush Intercontinental

simpler skies

Houston travelers on United Airlines now have access to a new, virtual, on-demand customer service aimed at simple, contact-free, real-time information and support. The new feature is available at George Bush International Airport, as well as Chicago O'Hare, and will roll out to other hubs by the end of the year, according to a press release.

Dubbed Agent on Demand, the new United service is available on any mobile device to call, text, or video chat live with an agent. Customers can scan a QR code displayed on signage throughout United's hub airports, or access the platform through self-service kiosks. From there, customers will be connected to an agent by phone, chat or video, based on their preference, according to the airline.

Travelers can get answers on seat assignments, boarding times, upgrades, standby list, flight status, rebooking, and more. Agent on Demand is aimed at convenience; customers cab go virtual as opposed to standing in line for answers.

For international travelers, more than 100 languages will be available via chat. (Customers type in their preferred language and the messages will be automatically transcribed in English for the agents — and in the selected language for the customer.)

United is the first airline to debut this technology, which is aimed at safety during the pandemic and convenience, United notes in a press release.

"We know how important it is for our customers to have more options for a contactless travel experience and this tool makes it easy to quickly receive personalized support directly from a live agent at the airport while maintaining social distancing," said Linda Jojo, United's executive vice president for technology and chief digital officer, in a statement. "Agent on Demand allows customers to bypass waiting in line at the gate and seamlessly connect with customer service agents from their mobile device, ensuring they continue to receive the highest levels of service while also prioritizing their health and safety."

In late November, United announced the expansion of its customer COVID-19 testing efforts to include flights departing Houston to select destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Bush Intercontinental has seen a massive drop in travelers since the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Houston Airport System

Major Houston airport lands on list of hardest hit during the pandemic

IAH'S BiG DROP

Since the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 as a global pandemic on March 11, few industries have slowed as dramatically as air travel. Airlines made massive cuts in services and jockeyed for government assistance. Some, such as United, announced furloughs of up to 45 percent of its U.S. based workers, some 36,000 employees.

Local airports such as George Bush Intercontinental witnessed a staggering drop in travelers.

Just how bad is the hit? Finance website FinanceBuzz crunched the numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation to determine the pandemic's effect on the 30 busiest airports in the nation. The site examined the number of departing passengers on domestic flights from June 2019 and compared them to June of this year.

Houston's Bush Intercontinental (IAH) saw a dramatic decrease in traffic of 82.83 percent, according to FinanceBuzz. June 2019 saw 1,473,575 departing passengers, compared to just 253,036 in June of this year. That drop puts IAH at No. 13 in the top 15 airports with the biggest traffic drops in the U.S.

For some perspective, the airport with the biggest plunge is New York City's LaGuardia, which saw 1,281,848 travelers depart in June 2019, while a paltry 133,272 departed this June, for a 89.60 percent drop.

But it's not all gloom and doom for Texas airports. FinanceBuzz also looked at airports making the best recovery from April to June of this year. Overall, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport saw the biggest increase in departing passengers, with 190,038 flying out in April 2020 and a whopping 998,875 flying out in June, for a jump of 425.62 percent.

The airport with the fastest recovery? That title goes to Chicago Midway International Airport, which saw 30,693 departures in April and 338,884 in June, for a leap of 1004.11 percent.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.

Report: Federal funding, increased life science space drive industry growth in Houston

by the numbers

Federal funding, not venture capital, continues to be the main driver of growth in Houston’s life sciences sector, a new report suggests.

The new Houston Life Science Insight report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows Houston accounted for more than half (52.7 percent) of total funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) across major Texas markets through the third quarter of this year. NIH funding in the Houston area totaled $769.6 million for the first nine months of 2022, exceeding the five-year average by 19.3 percent.

VC funding for Houston’s life sciences sector pales in comparison.

For the first nine months of this year, companies in life sciences raised $147.3 million in VC, according to the report. Based on that figure, Houston is on pace in 2022 to meet or surpass recent life sciences VC totals for most other years except 2021. JLL describes 2021 as an “outlier” when it comes to annual VC hauls for the region’s life sciences companies.

JLL notes that “limited venture capital interest in private industry has remained a challenge for the city’s life sciences sector. Furthermore, it may persist as venture capital strategies are reevaluated and investment strategies shift toward near-term profits.”

While life sciences VC funding has a lot of ground to cover to catch up with NIH funding, there are other bright spots for the sector.

One of those bright spots is the region’s rising amount of life sciences space.

The Houston area boasts more than 2.4 million square feet of space for life sciences operations, with another 1.1 million under construction and an additional 1.5 million square feet on the drawing board, the report says. This includes a soon-to-open lab spanning 25,000 square feet in the first phase of Levit Green.

A second bright spot is the migration of life sciences companies to the region. Two Southern California-based life sciences companies, Cellipoint Bioservices and Obagi Cosmeceuticals, plan to move their headquarters and relocate more than half of their employees to The Woodlands by the first half of 2023, according to the report.

“Houston’s low tax rate and cost of living were primary drivers for the decisions, supported by a strong labor pool that creates advantages for companies’ expansion and relocation considerations,” JLL says.

Here's what Houston startups need to know about internal communications

guest column

Startup founders often focus on outward victories. However, if they look inward and get internal communications right, this can prioritize, inspire, and retain talent, which is the heart of the company.

Consistent internal communication helps employees to understand the company's core values and mission and the evolving internal policies and procedures — health care benefits, reorganizations, remote work — that accompany a young business. Investing in internal communications also supports external public relations efforts because the best company storytellers are well-informed employees.

Consider these tactics for effective internal communications.

Prioritize messaging

In any startup, internal procedures evolve as the company grows. Take control of the narrative while easing employees' minds by prioritizing internal messaging.

Whether transitioning to a more flexible work schedule, updating healthcare benefits, or rolling out a performance review process, planning messages in advance can help team members understand the change, the impact, and how they can contribute positively to the development.

Well-informed employees help mitigate uneasiness and tend to achieve business goals more quickly. Make sure to allow the employees time to reflect and react.

Support managers

Leaders and mid-level managers play an integral role in internal communications by cascading information throughout the organization. They regularly engage with their employees, so it is important that managers feel confident and supported in their communication skills.

Managers can benefit from a common company language, talking points, or communications training for more effective and productive conversations. By identifying, clarifying, and reinforcing common goals and key objectives for managers, companies can strengthen productivity and eliminate confusion, especially if the company changes teams' roles and responsibilities.

Be consistent

Make sure that the drumbeat remains steady, whether this includes a monthly town hall meeting or weekly CEO emails. Since communication is not necessarily one-size-fits-all, use a communication approach tailored to the workforce.

For example, there might be more effective communication methods than email for employees not behind a desk. As a smaller company, take that time to connect with the team directly because as the company swells, that one-on-one experience will become increasingly difficult to manage.

Listen to employees

Delivering top-down messaging that resonates with the workforce remains critical. However, internal communication is a two-way street.

Allow team members to give valuable feedback. Encourage team members to share their thoughts about the company, concerns, and how to improve communications. Issue internal surveys or hold face-to-face meetings to gain useful insight.

Understanding these critical proof points will enable more effective communication and quick action on any issues.

Be a human

Keep humanity at the heart of internal communications. Amid the company's transition, maintain transparency and recognize the emotional toll some changes can have on teammates. The best talent will remain when they feel connected, informed and listened to.

Greater employee engagement can help build a strong company culture of accountability, authenticity and communication, setting up the business for bigger success.

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Melanie Taplett is a communications and public relations consultant for the technology, energy, and manufacturing industries.