When the news broke in March 2020 that COVID-19 was found in Houston, Saba Abashawl, a veteran of the Houston Airport System, was unsure of the impact that it would have on local air travel. Now that she’s taken on a bigger role as deputy director of global industry and government affairs for the airport system, Abashawl has been able to lead both Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports to rebound after the pandemic, with passenger numbers steadily increasing each month.
But for awhile early in her new position, it was grim. “It was pretty devastating to see a totally empty facility,” Abashawl says, recalling the decline of millions of passengers in 2020. “We only had very few passengers coming in for specific reasons. We had to work to see how we could be better prepared for the return of both international and domestic flights.” According to Abashawl, the overall impact of COVID-19 on Houston airports was considerable, citing a loss of more than 4.5 million passengers in April 2020. But this wasn’t Abashawl’s first rodeo, so to speak. She has dealt with major disruptions to the airline industry before. She recalls how 9/11 impacted the airport system, preparing her to respond to the travel disruptions that come with pandemics and terrorism events.
Outside of creating and maintaining new safety and health protocols, and reimagining what travel looks like with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Abashawl’s career with the airport system (she began in 1999) has also been notable for creating new pathways to international destinations such as direct flights to West Africa. The Ethiopian native immigrated to Houston in 1982 and she has been fully immersed in Houston’s culture ever since. When she’s not advancing Houston’s Airport System by day, she’s enjoying some of her favorite things: horseback riding, eating her favorite foods and traveling the world.
In Houston, Abashawl is at the epicenter of some of the best cuisine, first-rate shopping and access to almost any destination in the world via two international airports. Not to mention that every year, she gets to partake in Houston’s widely celebrated tradition of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
“If I take those things, you get Houston. Where else can you be on horseback in the morning, be in your office in 10 minutes and be able to travel anywhere in the world? Or be connected to major parts of the world?” Abashawl says proudly. “Houston is one of the most convenient cities I have ever seen, and that’s why I never leave.”
Under Abashawl’s guidance, significant progress has been made to innovate the airport system. A recent acknowledgement for William P. Hobby Airport made it the first international airport to receive a five-star rating in North America. It’s proof that Abashawl’s tenure continues to produce big results. But ensuring the health and safety of passengers during a pandemic continues to be a challenge. Abashawl worked alongside top Houston health officials and the CDC to implement programs such as biometrics—a no-touch, no-contact system that utilizes facial recognition and other groundbreaking technologies that aid in reducing passenger-to-employee contact. “There was a lot of communication with health officials, federal agencies and the Medical Center to see what we could do better to get to this point," Abashawl says.
Abashawl wants Houston’s airport system to advance even further by implementing facial recognition security checkpoints, which have largely become a hot button issue across the nation in regards to racial profiling. It’s something already in use in some airports in the U.S., and Abashawl wants to help keep the security process smooth and ensure even fewer touchpoints for travelers. “Imagine the whole travel experience from the time you get to the curb until you reach your destination, and you don’t have to take out a single piece of paper. You’re using your face as your passport,” Abashawl explains.
Another thing that she’d like to add to the list of accomplishments under her watch involves George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Abashawl hopes that Bush can soon receive the same designation as Hobby airport, which means that both Houston airports would have the highest rating for quality in the aviation industry in North America. Currently, Bush’s terminal is undergoing construction, something she refers to as growing pains—like rerouting traffic and reducing congestion to terminals for passengers. She says that while these things take time, Houston has a lot to look forward to.
“Houston is the absolute best. We live in a place that’s consistently growing while other cities are not. My love for international business development can be cultivated in a city like Houston. I’m working on my passion,” Abashawl says.