CONROE – From a bird’s-eye view, Lone Star Executive Airport has not changed much since it was built to serve the U.S. Navy during World War II.
On the ground, however, the buzz of construction equipment and new, sleek facilities suggest the regional airport in Conroe is about to take off in a very modern direction.
The two-runway airport, just off Interstate 45 about 25 miles from Bush Intercontinental Airport, opened for civilian use in 1946 and since has served a variety of users, from recreational fliers to emergency helicopters to an increasing number of corporate jets, particularly those serving the oil and gas business.
Over the last two decades, it has more than doubled the number of aircraft that use it and the hangar space to store them.
With an air traffic control tower in place, runway construction underway and new business facilities available for corporate clients, Lone Star Executive has even bigger plans to take advantage of the booming energy business and the rapid growth in Houston’s northern region.
“There is a need for more air services to meet the growing demand on the north side of Houston,” said aviation director Scott Smith.
Lone Star and the nine other regional airports in the Houston area relieve pressure on Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports, while helping reduce delays there, the Houston-Galveston Area Council has said.
While surviving threats to its air traffic control tower sparked by federal budget cuts, the Conroe airport also appears to have bounced back from the economic recession.
Last year, Lone Star sold 1.2 million gallons of fuel and is on track to sell more this year. That compares with 1.1 million gallons in 2006 and a low of 673,500 gallons in 2009.
Hangar space increased to 773,000 square feet this year from 174,000 in 1996.
Smith said $42 million has been invested in capital projects and operating costs at the airport since 2007. Citing more than 360 jobs on site and 21,000 visitors annually, he estimated it contributes $33 million to the local economy.
The Houston-Galveston Area Council estimates that economic impact will increase to about $50 million By 2030.
To meet anticipated demand, Smith said, a new taxiway is being built and the runway is being extended to 7,500 feet, a $17 million expansion project set to be completed by November. The extension will put the runway on par with those at airports like Sugar Land Regional, Hooks in Tomball and even Hobby.
“A longer runway can carry more passengers or fuel to get to a destination,” Smith said. “It will put us where we should be to serve the market we have.”
The airport’s next project is to bring a Customs and Border Patrol facility for international arrivals. The proposal would staff a Customs facility five days a week, with officers on call over weekends. Smith said last year more than 165 arrivals last year had to clear Customs elsewhere. He said a facility at Lone Star could ease the international travel traffic through Bush Intercontinental and attract more international flights by energy businesses from Canada, Mexico and Brazil.
That proposal under consideration by Montgomery County, which would have to approve the federal application.
On a recent visit to the airport, Smith pointed to the variety of services available at Lone Star, from medical helicopters and big corporate jets to a small aircraft owned by a woman who recently learned to fly.
Smith, who has a pilot’s license he hasn’t used since 2005, said he has enjoyed watching the airport grow since he took the job about eight years ago.
One side of the airport represents what Smith calls “grassroots aviation,” with recreational pilots who build their own planes and fly for sport.
Brent Crabe, a retired corporate pilot for an oil company, leases hangar space at Lone Star for his candy-red plane and his motorcycle. He said a group of roughly 100 other pilots meet regularly over coffee and doughnuts. How much they fly, Crabe said, depends on the weather.
“We fly to lunch,” Crabe said. “That’s what we build our airplanes for. We take it on trips now and then, but usually what we do is fly to lunch. We go pretty much anywhere where there’s a restaurant near the airport.”
Nearby is General Aviation Services, a family-run business at Lone Star since 1981. Its one of the airport’s three fixed-based operators, which are facilities that provide fuel, office space, and rental car and other services for incoming aircraft and passengers. It was remodeled last year.
General Aviation now features a concession area behind a wooden bar, a living room-type area for pilots to use between flights, and hangar space to fuel aircraft. A new room sectioned off on the second-story overlooks the runways and has a brand-new conference table to accommodate the influx of corporate business.
“When we started this place in 1981, it was pretty slow out here, in the mid-’80s, when the oil went bust,” said Bob Covington, who runs General Aviation Services. “It got pretty thin for awhile, but it’s coming back now. The economy’s better, the highways are bigger, a lot of things are going on.”
On the other side of the airport, corporate-jet clientele use a new multimillion-dollar facility, with large conference rooms and a restaurant on site to jet between meetings and business trips.
A $50 million, three-story Galaxy Fixed-Base Operator building, owned by Black Forest Ventures, was completed last year. In addition to ample hangar space for corporate jets, it also features spacious lobby areas, 15,000 square feet of prime office space and conference rooms with leather-backed chairs and huge projection screens.
There’s also a Black Walnut Cafe overlooking the runway.
The owners say they expanded to cater to the energy companies that have been moving north of Houston, most notably the massive Exxon Mobil campus being built south of The Woodlands.
“We are definitely getting some additional traffic that wasn’t considering this airport before,” said Haydar Kustu with Black Forest Ventures.
Another relatively new portion of the airport is the county-owned air traffic control tower. Atop the tower, the airport is in full view.
“We are actually getting down to the point where there are just a couple small parcels left on this side of the airport,” Smith said, pointing to his left. On the other side, however, empty land is available for new businesses near the Galaxy. “There’s still developable area. Our long-term goal is to grow our corporate business.”
Although the airport is mostly surrounded by pine-tree woods, an adjacent business technology park is also expanding, in anticipation of the growth of business activity in the area. The Deison Technology Park, designed to draw office and industrial business to the area, has already attracted several businesses, said Danielle Scheiner, deputy director of the Greater Conroe Economic Development Council.
“You might not think of Conroe as being a hub for international business,” Scheiner said. “It’s a very different community than it was 15 or 30 years ago. It’s changing dramatically.”