MIAMI — Mario Diaz is director of the city of Houston’s Department of Aviation, where he oversees the management of the Houston Airport System’s three aviation facilities: George Bush Intercontinental Airport, William P. Hobby Airport and Ellington Airport.
Diaz has been successful in bringing more air service to passengers in the region. New service to Bush Airport under his watch includes Turkish Airlines, Korean Air, Air China and Scandinavian Airlines.
Diaz came to Houston via Atlanta, where he served as the deputy general manager for Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. He worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for 17 years in key management positions in leasing, finance, marketing, operations and properties. He is a licensed private pilot with instrument certification. He spoke to AirwaysNews about the airport’s air service victories in 2014 and 2015, building relationships and keeping tenant airlines happy.
Airways: Before Coming to Houston Airport System, you were Deputy Director at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. How Do you Think it Prepared you for Taking Over at HAS
Mario Diaz: I was COO at Hartsfield. When the then-CEO Ben DeCosta found out I got the job in Houston, he said that when I got here, “you’ll have to find your you.” I didn’t understand what he meant until I got here. There’s the leader, like me, but I had to find someone who actually runs the airport while I do the bigger things, like working with city and state officials, legislators and businesses, all of which come to bear on an airport of this size. It was lucky that I was able to bring Lance Lyttle from Atlanta with me to be my COO.
Both Bush and Hobby Airports Posted Record International and Domestic Traffic in 2014. What Drove All that Growth?
What we saw in 2014 was the return of flights. Between 2010 and 2013, there was the merger of United and Continental, with United as the surviving entity. United had to consolidate its routes and right-size its networks. So there wasn’t as much domestic growth because United was sorting things out. By 2014, United was back with a vengeance, both domestically and internationally.
You Brought in New International Flights on Five Airlines in 2014 and Will Add Five More in 2015. Why is it so Important to Continue to Bring in New International Carriers?
That’s why we exist. The whole mission and purpose of this airport is air service, and this is not unique to Houston. Every larger airport has a similar mission. We connect people and businesses to other cultures of the worlds, whether its Chicago O’Hare, JFK, Miami, San Francisco or Houston.
You also Added New Routes in 2014 and Will Add more in 2015. Which Routes are Among the Ones that Stand Out for you?
Asia is a growth market for Houston and a number of other cities. We now have Eva Air to Taipei. I can’t tell you how many times I traveled to Taipei to get this service. All Nippon Airlines is here with 787 Dreamliner service. We know that there was some criticism about Japan Airlines and ANA taking over, but both are good airlines. JAL is part of the Oneworld alliance and ANA is in the Star Alliance.
We were happy to welcome WestJet with flights between Houston and Calgary, connecting two oil cities. Service from Volaris is exciting because it connects Houston to Mexico, the city’s largest trading partner. And I can’t forget Interjet, which is also expanding service into Mexico. We are delighted and humbled by the enormous outpouring of support in attracting these foreign flag carriers. This service is putting Houston on the map as a place that’s open for business, that’s culturally diverse and is a worthwhile place to visit for tourists and families.
What Does Your Air Service Team Look Like?
I lead our air services team. When I got to Houston, there wasn’t a lot happening. Then there was added pressure because of the United-Continental merger. I first focused on Turkish Airlines for service to Istanbul, along with getting a connection to China. I focused on emphasizing the good name of Houston and its strength in the energy sector.
One thing I realized is in dealing with Asia and developing countries, traditional methods don’t work. You don’t walk in and say “I’m here to do business,” get a flight and make money. I have learned that sometimes you need to establish a friendship and gain trust. You do that by offering what you can and acknowledge that you want to be partners.
In the case of Air China, we helped them train close to 300 air traffic controllers in the past few years. We invited executives from Vietnam to come to Houston and we trained them in airport management. We’ve worked with Ecuador, China, Mozambique, Nigeria and Kenya. We’re open for business, but we’re also open to help. It’s a way our city can show that it’s more than just about money. They can see our strong economy and our cultural diversity.
What are our Air Service Priorities for the Airport in 2015 and 2016?
Our priority is to slow down. We now have to focus on our facility here. It doesn’t mean that the air service development team will stop. They will still see if there are opportunities in Latin America, then pursue them. We won’t say no to that or to opportunities in Africa, but I won’t be pressuring the team to deliver on these. Our main focus will be to set in place the building blocks needed to rebuild the international terminal. We want to do a major redevelopment of the entire north side of George Bush.
You still have United Airlines Operating a Major Hub Out of George Bush Intercontinental. How Do you Balance Keeping them Happy but also Keep a Diverse Number of Airlines?
That gets into the question on what is that relationship. As an airport director, you have to have the experience and knowledge to know what’s appropriate in the airport and airline relationship. A lot of people talk about airlines as customers, but they are key suppliers of the product an airport wants to sell. People don’t come to the airport to eat a hot dog. They come to the airport because they want to go someplace, so commercial development takes the lead. If an airport can’t grow, it becomes stagnant and can’t go anywhere.
United is our largest supplier of seats to destinations where people want to go, but they can’t provide all that. So we go after service where United doesn’t fly or doesn’t see the value. The city’s economy is strong, and that economy will generate passengers. We want to help airlines fill business class seats and fill seats in the back. Despite the flattening of oil prices, Houston is still growing.
Airlines want to know they are in a facility that functions well and can do it at a good price. They provide seats in a competitive environment and we do our part to keep prices down and help them grow markets to the extent that we can. We keep them happy.
What does Houston Airport System need to do to keep that supply going?
We have the opening of the international terminal at Hobby by Southwest Airlines, so we expect to see more traffic there. We’re projecting that in 2016, the airport will grow by one million additional passengers. As United continues to fine tune its network, it will see the development of a Star Alliance hub at Bush. The synergies and economies of scale that United can do here, providing domestic feed for its international partners, will help with growth.
The front of airplanes won’t be as full, but the back of the plane will be fuller, so we’ll continue to see growth. We’re not predicting large-scale growth, but between 2 and 2.5 percent. This is steady growth that is achievable. We don’t want to be the world’s busiest airport. Quality is what matters to passengers, not quantity. Passengers and airlines just want to know that the airport is meeting their needs.