The Houston Airport System announced a Memorandum of Understanding with Wisk Aero, a fully-owned subsidiary of Boeing. Photo via wisk.aero

A fleet of electric and autonomous air taxis is expected to take flight in Houston, thanks to a partnership between a California startup and the Houston Airport System.

HAS announced a Memorandum of Understanding with Wisk Aero, a fully-owned subsidiary of Boeing, which recently announced a similar partnership with the city of Sugar Land. For the next year, the company will identify vertiport infrastructure at Houston's three airports — George Bush Intercontinental Airport, William P. Hobby Airport, and Ellington Airport.

“During my time in the Texas senate, I voted for legislation supporting advanced air mobility. This public-private partnership marks a significant step forward for the City of Houston as we invest in innovative and sustainable modes of air transportation,” Houston Mayor John Whitmire says in a statement. “The collaboration underscores our commitment to pioneer advancements that will shape the future of urban mobility.”

Wisk will also develop Houston-area relationships and chart out flight paths for self-flying, electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxis. The company's Generation 6 aircraft is autonomous, but a human supervisor remotely oversees every flight.

"Houston is at the forefront of aviation and aerospace innovation, so it’s only fitting that Houston Airports take the first steps to explore the next generation of air transportation,” says Jim Szczesniak, director of aviation for Houston Airports. “Our partnership with Wisk represents a bold step towards revolutionizing air mobility not just within our city, but across the entire Greater Houston region."

Earlier this year, Wisk partnered in a similar capacity with Sugar Land. The company and HAS will also work with the Federal Aviation Administration on this initiative.

“Our partnership with Houston Airports solidifies Wisk’s commitment to creating new and efficient ways to travel within the Greater Houston area and furthers our relationship with infrastructure and regulatory partners in the region," adds Brian Yutko, CEO at Wisk. “Connecting suburbs to Houston’s airports, business centers and prime tourist destinations through autonomous, sustainable air travel will create a new form of urban mobility and have tremendous economic and workforce impacts, supporting the growth of the Houston region.”

In addition to early infrastructure planning for maintenance and training facilities in Houston, the partnership means Houston Airports and Wisk will collaborate on integrating AAM into HAS's long-term plans.

The renovations plans include updating both Houston airports. Photo courtesy of Visit Houston

Houston Airports lines up $30 million for restroom renovations, including tech upgrades

coming soon

Houston Airports is making a major investment in helping travelers take care of one of their most basic needs. Over the next two years, the agency will invest $30 million in upgrading the bathrooms at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and at William P. Hobby Airport (HOU).

The money will be used to upgrade restrooms throughout Hobby and at IAH’s Terminals A and D. Houston Airports notes the restrooms at IAH are about 20 years old. Houston Mayor John Whitmire had made the upgrades one of his priorities.

Plans for the renovations include replacing floors, walls, stalls, lighting, sinks, and counters. The new stalls will be larger, with enough room for a carry-on suitcase and a shelf to hold a person’s bag, and will better comply with ADA regulations. Even better, occupancy sensors for each stall will mean not having to look for feet when trying to determine if one is available.

“Houston Airports joins Mayor Whitmire in a shared strategic priority to make our passengers happy. Earlier this year, the mayor challenged Houston Airports to prioritize the renovation of our aging restrooms at both airports,” Houston Airports director of aviation Jim Szczesniak said in a statement. “We are committed to exceeding expectations and ensuring that Houston Airports offers a world-class travel experience for all passengers. The restroom renovation project is a significant step forward in achieving that goal.”

Overall, the upgrades will include:
  • IAH Terminal A: 18 restrooms, seven family restrooms, and a companion care changing room
  • IAH Terminal D: Five restrooms, one restroom in the Mother’s Room
  • HOU: 9 restrooms each in Departures and the Ticketing Lobby

A $10 million grant from the FAA will help subsidize the cost of the renovations.

As for IAH Terminals B, C, and E, United has agreed to upgrade them as well. Last year, United and Houston Airports agreed to invest $2.6 billion to upgrade Terminal B.

"In 2023, Houston Airports welcomed a record 60.1 million passengers, with a vast majority flying through Bush Airport,” Szczesniak added. “It’s imperative that Houston Airports continue improve existing infrastructure to meet increasing demand while aligning our terminals to meet the modern and sustainable design of the new IAH international terminal. The end result of these projects will be a more resilient and sustainable airport system that delivers an efficient passenger experience from curb to gate.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

It's game on at Hobby Airport, which is one of the first airports in the country to open a premium video game lounge. Photo courtesy of Gameway

Houston airport powers up new gaming lounge for bored and weary travelers

game on and wheels down

Local gamers now have a new option to while away those flight delays and passenger pickup waits at Hobby Airport.

Houston's William P. Hobby Airport is now one the first airports in the country to offer what's dubbed as the "ultimate gaming experience for travelers." The airport has launched a premium video game lounge inside the international terminal called Gameway.

That means weary, bored, or early travelers can chill in the lounge and plug into15 top-of-the-line, luxury gaming stations: six Xbox stations, five Playstation stations, four PC stations, all with the newest games on each platform. Aficionados will surely appreciate the Razer's Iskur Gaming Chairs and Kraken Headsets, along with dedicated high speed internet at each PC station.

The Gameway lounge pays homage to gaming characters, with wall accents that hark to motherboard circuits Crucial for any real gamer: plenty of sweet and savory snacks are available for purchase to fuel up on those fantasy, battle, or sporting endeavors. As for the gaming console stations, players can expect high definition screens, comfortable seating, and plenty of space for belongings.

Make video games a part of your pre-flight ritual. Photo courtesy of Gameway

This gaming addition comes just in time for the holiday rush, when travelers can expect long lines, delays, and are already planning for extended time for trips. As CultureMap previously reported, Hobby will see a big boost in travelers this season — the largest since 2019. Now, those on a long journey can plug in, decompress, and venture on virtual journeys of their own.

Texan travelers may be familiar with Gameway; the company opened its first two locations at Dallas Fort-Worth Airport. The buzzy lounge an industry wave of acclaim: Gameway was awarded Best Traveler Amenity in 2019 at the ACI-NA Awards and in 2020, voted “Most Innovative Customer Experience” at the Airport Experience Traveler Awards, per press materials.

Two new locations followed in 2021: LAX Terminal 6 and Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The first of Gameway's Ultra lounge brand opened in September at Delta's Terminal 3 in LAX.

Gaming culture is a way of life in the Bayou City , which hosts Comicpalooza, the largest pop culture festival in Texas, and is home to several e-sports teams, including the pro esports squad, the Houston Outlaws.

A delayed flight never seemed so ideal for gamers flying out of Hobby. Photo courtesy of Gameway

“Gameway is the real reason to get to the airport early,” said Co-Founder Jordan Walbridge in a statement. “Our mission is to upgrade the typical wait-at-the-gate experience with a new stimulating, entertaining option for travelers of all ages.”

Here's guessing Hobby might just see an increase in missed or late flight arrivals — as travelers simply must beat those big bosses, solve puzzles, or win sports matches in the lounge.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Hobby scored the first 5-star rating in North America. Photo via fly2houston.com

Houston airport lands first coveted 5-star rating in North America

5-star skies

Houston travelers now have new bragging rights. William P. Hobby Airport has just scored a prestigious 5-Star Airport status in the Skytrax World Airport Star Rating for 2022. That makes Hobby the first airport in Texas, the U.S., and North America — and one of just 16 airports across the world to land the 5-star rating.

A little about this ranking: The Skytrax World Airport Star Rating is a global benchmark of quality evaluation for the aviation industry, a press release describes. All airports are rated between a 1-Star and 5-Star level after a detailed audit analysis of facilities and staff service to customers throughout all areas of front-line service.

In the new survey, Hobby soared in all 29 rating categories. The 5-Star Rating international Skytrax rating also highlighted the airport’s “wide range of substantial guest experience upgrades to the terminal interiors, passenger facilities, and customer service initiatives.”

Skytrax lauds recent Hobby improvements such as a new children’s play area, state-of-the-art restroom facilities, modern signage and information systems, a prayer room, and a new stage for live music performances.

Meanwhile, Houston’s other airport, George Bush Intercontinental, maintained its 4-Star rating for a fifth consecutive year, and boosted its score across the rating categories.

Houston Airports notes in a statement that construction continues to advance the international terminal redevelopment program, such as the planned Mickey Leland International Terminal, which aims to create two 5-star Houston airports.

“The entire Houston Airports team has worked tirelessly toward reaching this accomplishment at Hobby Airport,” Houston Airports director of aviation Mario Diaz said in a statement. “Providing the highest quality of customer service, exceptional amenities and cutting-edge facilities has earned us five stars at Hobby Airport and an improved 4-Star rating at Bush Airport, and now we owe it to our passengers to continue delivering excellence at every step of the airport experience.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Hobby Airport was one of five airports selected nationally to use a new facial recognition software. Image via fly2houston.com

Houston airport first in Texas to be selected for facial recognition program

just face it

International travelers coming in and out of Hobby Airport are being processed now completely with facial recognition as of last week. The technology is expected to shorten wait times and streamline safety.

"Hobby Airport has taken a big leap into the future of travel," Houston Aviation Director Mario Diaz says in a news release.

Houston was one of the five airports picked by Homeland Security — and the only in Texas — to have Simplified Arrivals, a full biometric entry and exit for international passengers going through United States Customs and Border Protection inspection checkpoints.

"Simplified Arrivals will enhance the travel experience for more than a million international passengers traveling through Hobby Airport every year," Diaz continues in the release. "This is an important step to realize our goal of becoming a 5-star airport."

Houston Airport Systems first introduced biometric technology with Southwest Airlines in November 2018, and before that, George Bush Intercontinental Airport first started using facial recognition technology in 2017. Since 2018, this biometric facial technology has recognized 250 imposters nationally who attempted to enter the U.S. with legal travel documents that belonged to a different person, according to the release.

The new technology is expected to speed up the checkpoint process. Image via fly2houston.com

Travelers will encounter the technology at their primary inspection point. They will taker a photo, which will then compare that image to previously provided photos of that traveler — like passport and visa photos. Travelers under the age of 14 or over the age of 79 can opt out and be process manually. United States and Canadian citizens may also opt out.

"CBP is committed to working with our partners to ensure that the travel system is secure and efficient," Houston Director of Field Operations Judson W. Murdock II says in the release. "The speed, accuracy and reliability of facial comparison technology enable CBP officers to confirm a traveler's identity within seconds while further enhancing the customer experience."

These new photos of U.S. citizens taken at the checkpoint will be deleted within 12 hours, while photos of foreign nationals will be stored in a secure system.

"It takes a village to make something like this happen," says Saba Abashawl, director of external affairs at HAS, in a promotional video. "At the end of the day, we end up providing unparalleled customer service."

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

Hobby Airport continues to grow as hub for business travel with new commitments from 2 airlines

flight tracking

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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Houston space tech company reaches major milestone for engine technology

fired up

A Houston company that's creating the next generation of space exploration technology is celebrating a new milestone of one of its technologies.

Intuitive Machines reports that its VR900 completed a full-duration hot-fire test, qualifying it for its IM-2 lunar mission. With the qualification, the company says its VR3500, an engine designed for larger cargo class landers, also advances in development.

The engine technology is designed, 3D-printed, and tested all at Intuitive Machines' Houston facility, which opened in the Houston Spaceport last year.

Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus says in a news release that the company's goal was to lead the way in scalable deep space engines as the industry heads toward lunar missions.

“This validated engine design meets current mission demand and paves the way for our VR3500 engine for cargo delivery such as lunar terrain vehicles, human spaceflight cargo resupply, and other infrastructure delivery," Altemus continues. "We believe we’re in a prime position to build on our successful development and apply that technology toward current contracts and future lunar requirements for infrastructure delivery.”

Earlier this year, Intuitive Machines was one of one of three companies selected for a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Another Houston company has seen success with its engine testing. In March, Venus Aerospace announced that it's successfully ran the first long-duration engine test of their Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine in partnership with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Houston is the most stressed out city in Texas, report finds

deep breaths

Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but a new report by WalletHub shows Houston residents are far more stressed out than any other city in Texas.

Houston ranked No. 18 out of 182 of the largest U.S. cities based on work, financial, family-related, and health and safety stress, according to WalletHub's "Most & Least Stressed Cities in America (2024)" report. 39 relevant metrics were considered in the report, including each city's job security, the share of households behind on bills within the last 12 months, divorce rates, crime rates, among others.

Houston was ranked the most stressed out city in Texas, but it's still far less stressed than many other U.S. cities. Cleveland, Ohio took first place as the most stressed city in America, followed by Detroit, Michigan (No. 2), Baltimore, Maryland (No. 3), Memphis, Tennessee (No. 4), and Gulfport, Mississippi (No. 5).

Out of the four main categories, Houstonians are struggling the most with work-related stress, ranking No. 13 nationally. The report found Houston has the No. 1 highest traffic congestion rate out of all cities in the report. But at least Houston drivers are solidly average, as maintained by a separate Forbes study comparing the worst drivers in America.

Houston workers can rejoice that they live in a city with a generally high level of guaranteed employment, as the city ranked No. 151 in the job security comparison. The city ranked No. 16 nationwide in the metric for the highest average weekly hours worked.

Houston fared best in the financial stress category, coming in at No. 72 nationally, showing that Houstonians aren't as worried about pinching pennies when it comes to maintaining a good quality of life. The city ranked No. 39 in the comparison of highest poverty rates.

Here's how WalletHub quantified Houston's stress levels:

  • No. 17 – Health and safety stress rank (overall)
  • No. 36 – Family stress rank (overall)
  • No. 63 – Unemployment rates
  • No. 81 – Percentage of adults in fair/poor health
  • No. 95 – Divorce rate
  • No. 96 – Percentage of adults with inadequate sleep

WalletHub analyst Cassandra Happe said in the report that living in particularly arduous cities can play a big role in how stressed a person is, especially when considering uncontrollable circumstances like family problems or work-related issues.

"Cities with high crime rates, weak economies, less effective public health and congested transportation systems naturally lead to elevated stress levels for residents," Happe said.

Happe advised that residents considering a move to a place like Houston should consider how the city's quality of life will impact their mental health, not just their financial wellbeing.

Other Texas cities that ranked among the top 100 most stressed cities in the U.S. are:

  • No. 20 – San Antonio
  • No. 38 – Laredo
  • No. 41 – Dallas
  • No. 47 – Corpus Christi
  • No. 61 – El Paso
  • No. 68 – Fort Worth
  • No. 71 – Brownsville
  • No. 75 – Arlington
  • No. 78 – Grand Prairie
  • No. 88 – Garland
The full report and its methodology can be found on wallethub.com

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston cardiac health startup raises $43 million series B to grow AI-backed platform

money moves

A Houston-based tech company that has a product line of software solutions for cardiac health has raised funding.

Octagos Health, the parent company of Atlas AI — a software platform for cardiac devices like pacemakers, defibrillators, ambulatory monitors and consumer wearables — has announced a $43 million series B raise that will bring their technology to many more hearts.

Morgan Stanley Investment Capital led the investment, which also included funds from Mucker Capital and other continuing strategic investors. The goal of the raise is to supply funds to accelerate Atlas AI’s growth across the United States and to expand into other areas of care, including ambulatory monitors, consumer wearables, and sleep.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate enhancements to our platform, in addition to scaling our commercial team and operations. We are currently the only company that helps cardiology practices migrate their historical data from legacy software providers and fully integrates with any EHR (exertion heart rate) system. We do this while enabling customized reporting supported by patient and practice decision-support analytics," says Eric Olsen, COO of Octagos Health, in a press release.

Octagos Health was founded by a team of healthcare pros including CEO Shanti Bansal, a cardiologist and founder of Houston Heart Rhythm, an atrial fibrillation center. The goal was to find a new way to deal with the massive amount of data that clinicians encounter each day in a way that combines software and the work of human doctors.

According to the Octagos Health website, “Our solution allows clinicians to focus on other ways of delivering meaningful healthcare and more efficiently manage their remotely monitored patients.”

It works thanks to customizable reporting features that allow patients’ healthcare teams to get help while monitoring them, but to do it precisely as they would if they were crunching numbers themselves.

"We are excited to partner with Octagos Health and support their vision of transforming cardiac care," says Melissa Daniels, managing director of Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital. "Octagos Health has demonstrated exceptional growth and innovation in a critical area of healthcare. We believe their platform and vertically integrated software and services significantly improve patient care and streamline cardiac monitoring processes for healthcare providers."

Will Hsu, co-founder and partner of Mucker Capital, agrees. “Octagos Health is poised for scale – industry leading gross margins, a very sticky product that doctors and clinical staff love, and a market ready for disruption with artificial intelligence. This is the new wave for diagnostic care,” he says. And with this raise, it will be available to even more clinicians and patients across the country.