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

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.

The Access Houston Airports is optimized with tools for children with developmental disabilities to use during their travels in and out of Houston. Photo courtesy of the Houston Airport System

Houston Airport Systems launches app to improve accessibility

flight plan

Houston's two airports have a new digital tool to help its passengers with developmental disabilities better navigate their journey in and out of town.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport have partnered with Chicago-based Autism innovation company, Infiniteach, to launch the Access Houston Airports mobile app. The free technology provides tools to children with autism or other conditions — as well as their caregivers — throughout their Houston Airport System experience.

"Houston Airports continues to embrace technology to go the extra mile to assist passengers of all abilities on their journey through our airports," says Jesus Saenz, Houston Airports' COO, in a news release.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 13 percent of the United states have an "invisible" developmental disability like autism. Tim Joniec, the director of government relations and Americans with Disability Act coordination at HAS, says in the release that this translates to 20,000 daily Houston travelers.

"Houston Airports is introducing this app to ease anxiety for these families and provide information and resources that will make their visit to the airport an engaging and meaningful experience," Joniec says in the release.

The app uses researched-based strategies and features, including guides, short picture stories, scheduling tool, checklist feature, as well as caregiver information like terminal maps and support.

The app launch is just one improvement HAS has made. The organization has also conducted employee disability awareness training, Aira technology for the blind or low vision, service dog familiarization training, and nonprofit involvement through Southwest Airlines and United Airlines' annual Wings for all event.

Users can set a schedule for themselves, which can give them some comfort as they travel and accomplish tasks. Courtesy of HAS

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Houston medtech accelerator announces inaugural cohort

future of health care

A Houston medical technology organization has announced the inaugural cohort of a new early-stage accelerator.

M1 MedTech, launched this year by Houston-based Proxima Clinical Research, announced its Fall 2022 cohort.

“This initial cohort launches M1 MedTech with an interactive 14-week agenda covering the basics every emerging MedTech business needs to progress from a startup to an established solution in their market,” says Sean Bittner, director of programs at M1 MedTech, in a news release.

The accelerator will equip early-stage startups with storytelling, business plan support, investor connections, FDA guidance, research, and more through one-on-one consultations, workships, and in-kind services.

The first cohort includes five startups, per the release from the company:

  1. Linovasc. Providing a long overdue major update to balloon angioplasty devices in over 50 years, the Linovasc solution offers a safer branch occlusion and aortic stent dilatation using a toroidal balloon that expands the aorta uniformly without the ischemia caused by current treatments. The company is founded by Bruce Addis.
  2. Grapheton. Founded by Sam Kassegne and Bao Nguyen, Grapheton's patented carbon materials work with electrically active devices to improve the longevity and outcome of bioelectric implants in the body. Terry Lingren serves as the CEO of the startup.
  3. Rhythio Medical. Founded by Kunal Shah and Savannah Esteve, Rhythio is the first preventative approach to heart arrhythmias.The chief medical officer is Dr. Mehdi Razavi.
  4. PONS Technology. An AI cognitive functioning ultrasound device attempting to change the way ultrasound is done, PONS is founded by CEO: Soner Haci and CTO: Ilker Hacihaliloglu.
  5. Vivifi Medical. Founded by CEO Tushar Sharma, Vivifi is the first suture-less laparoscopic technology that connects vessels to improve male infertility and benign prostatic hyperplasia. The company's senior R&D engineer is Frida Montoya.

The program includes support from sponsors and experts from: Proxima Clinical Research, Greenlight Guru, Medrio, Galen Data, Merge Medical Device Studio, Venn Negotiation, Engagement PR & Marketing, Aleberry Creative, and others.

“This is an amazing opportunity for emerging founders to learn the progression of pipelining their ideas through the FDA and absorb the critical strategies for success early in their business development,” says Isabella Schmitt, principal at M1 MedTech and director of regulatory affairs at Proxima CRO, in the release.

Houston-based 'AirBNB for churches' startup completes Amazon accelerator, gathers fresh funding

now accelerating

Houston startup, ChurchSpace, recently participated in the inaugural cohort of the AWS Impact Accelerator for Black Founders, which included a pre-seed fundraising campaign and a $125,000 equity injection from Amazon.

The startup, coined as the “AirBNB for churches” is a tech-enabled marketplace that has a mission to minimize low utilization rate of church real estate across the country. Per the website, ChurchSpace is accepting congregations on its waitlist and is expected to launch this fall.

The AWS Impact Accelerator strengthened ChurchSpace’s efforts of turning underutilized church real estate into on-demand event, worship, and kitchen space. The program provides high-potential, pre-seed startups the tools and knowledge to reach key milestones such as raising funding or being accepted to a seed-stage accelerator program.

"Being a part of the inaugural AWS Impact Accelerator has changed the trajectory and tech build of ChurchSpace," says Day Edwards, CEO and co-founder of the company. "From the grant time to having the ability to build a platform using the latest technologies to ensure churches can share their space safely has truly been a blessing. I urge any female founder to definitely take time to apply. This is a life changing opportunity for all startups."

As one of 25 startups selected for the program, ChurchSpace also received credits, extensive training, mentoring and technical guidance, as well as introductions to Amazon leaders and teams, networking opportunities with potential investors, and ongoing advisory support.

“For underrepresented founders, access is power. And as Black founders with an audacious mission to eradicate high church underutilization rates, the access to capital, mentorship and tech innovation support will create tidal waves of positive impact that reach far beyond our internal operations but spread to thousands of local communities across the nation,” says Emmanuel Brown, ChurchSpace co-founder and COO.

AWS recently announced its three-year, $30 million commitment to the program. Amazon is currently looking for female founders for the next cohort that is now open with the deadline date of August 26.

MassChallenge Texas alum, ChurchSpace was founded in 2020 by two Black millennial pastors’ kids who witnessed the crippling effects that large church financial overhead placed on church leaders. The marketplace allows churches to earn extra revenue while remaining compliant with IRS nonprofit regulations. ChurchSpace is expecting to launch in 10 states with over 6,000 waitlisted users.

“I want to congratulate a truly innovative and inspiring group of startups selected from thousands of applicants for this opportunity. On behalf of the entire team, we are honored to support them on their journey,” says Howard Wright, vice president of startups at AWS.

Day Edwards is the co-founder and CEO of Church Space, which was founded in 2020. Photo courtesy of Church Space

Houston innovator hunts down better tech for online outdoor equipment marketplace

houston innovators podcast episode 147

Get ready, sports and wilderness lovers. A Houston company that's built an online marketplace for apparel and equipment is gearing up for some big updates to its user experience.

Bill Voss — founder and CEO of Everest, an online marketplace working to be a one-stop shop for all outdoors and sporting equipment — joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss some major upgrades to the platform that are coming soon.

"Our biggest challenge to date was technology. For the past two years, we have been developing our own technology," Voss says on the show. "Before the end of this year, there will be a brand new website with a better user experience and an amazing marketplace app. It's going to be really exciting."

Another new addition to Everest is a Amazon Prime-like level of membership called Caliber. This option will provide consumers the same level of discounts, overnight shipping, etc. that they've come to expect from entities like Amazon. Caliber will also include a video streaming component that Voss says will launch next year.

While Everest is in many ways striving to compete with the likes of Amazon, Voss says the company wants to differ in one big way — how it collaborates with sellers.

"We really are seller friendly," Voss says. "We work with our sellers and communicate with them. We think we have some of the best customer service as it relates to seller interaction in the business. If our sellers are happy, it will translate to a better customer experience at the end of the day."

Voss says he has mountainous goals for Everest — and the potential for impact on the entire sports and outdoors industry is there. As the new website, app, and streaming service all deliver over the next year, Voss says the company will take a huge step toward being able to disrupt the industry.

"A true marketplace allows us to come together as one group, and we can conquer the space. We can be a true disruptor, we can be a household name, and we can do something very special here," he explains. "But we don't believe we have to do it alone. The seller community is coming together in one ecosystem called Everest."

Voss shares more about the future of Everest on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.