Origins and Construction of Houston Intercontinental Airport

In the mid-1950s, a team of local business executives and civic leaders, recognizing the need for a new airport, purchased more than 3,100 acres north of the Houston city limits. This purchase ensured that Houston, after making a formal decision to build a new airport, would be able to acquire the property at cost. With the property secured, the team sold it to the city at cost, with the transfer completed by 1961, but the tract was not large enough and the city purchased additional land to accommodate the new airport.

Through bond sales and federal subsidies, the city expanded the airport building budget and construction began on the new Houston Intercontinental Airport in 1965 when Houston's annexation of the property was finalized. The troubles did not stop there, however. In many ways, they were just beginning.

As the airport's construction progressed, the opening date for the Houston Intercontinental Airport moved further and further into the future and the price tag for the project increased incrementally as well, from $60 million in 1966 to $85 million in 1968 to $110 million when it finally opened on June 2, 1969. What could possibly go wrong with the airport construction that could delay it for so long and cost so much?

Shortly after groundbreaking in the summer 1965, the R.F. Ball Construction Company began digging an underground tunnel intended to connect the terminals. Heavy rains filled the hole and created a lake 30 feet wide and a third of a mile long. After pumping out the water, the company endured two wage-related labor strikes and then more rain -- and delays -- soon followed. R.F. Ball’s project manager said the company lost 146 days in the first 14 months.

The workforce had its own problems. They placed concrete walls in the wrong place and put steel reinforcements in backwards. One day the jack holding up a section of freshly poured concrete slipped. The workers watched as it sank more than three feet. It took over six weeks to chisel out 243 cubic yards of concrete.

A former superintendent claimed mismanagement and labor trouble caused the delays, but the city may share some culpability. To save time and money, the city decided to eliminate the fifth level of the parking decks at both terminals. When changing the plans, the architect forgot to specify weatherproofing and sealing of the fourth levels and rain leaked through to the third levels, causing additional delays.

Problems continued to arise even after the Houston Intercontinental Airport finally opened in 1969. Some critics considered the runway system already obsolete and others found the runway lighting system was insufficient. Only four years later, the city’s aviation director, Joe Foster, told the Dallas Morning News that one of the airport's runways needed $20 million in repairs.

Other complications included the $2,000 a day penalty for every day the job was late, a penalty that became impossible to enforce. Claiming some responsibility for some of the delays, the city paid $20.1 million on the $17.7 million project but R.F. Ball sued for another $8 million. The city successfully defended itself against the suit but five-term Mayor Louie Welch reportedly decided not to run for governor because of the airport's four-year debacle that took place entirely while he was in office.