Located 23 miles north of downtown Houston and opened in 1969, George Bush Intercontinental Airport [IAH] is the major international gateway serving the city, as well as the largest domestic hub for United Airlines based on available seats. Houston-IAH is also the second busiest airport in Texas, behind Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
United Airlines and its regional partners carry an overwhelming share of traffic with domestic arrivals and departures on Airbus A319, A320 and Boeing 737, 757, 767, 777 and 787 aircraft, plus numerous regional flights on the Bombardier CRJ200, CRJ700 and Embraer ERJ-145 and E-175. International airline variety peaked prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but as of late 2021 still includes Aeroméxico, Air Canada Express, Air France, All Nippon Airways, Avianca El Salvador (TACA), British Airways, Emirates, EVA Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines, Viva Aerobus, Volaris and WestJet. Cargo visitors at the airport include Air Transport International, ACT Cargo, Air France Cargo, Atlas Air, CAL Cargo, Cargolux, Cathay Pacific Cargo, FedEx, Qatar Cargo, Southern Air, UPS and even occasional visits by the Antonov An-12 and An-124. Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, Frontier, jetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit provide multiple domestic services throughout the day.
www.Houstonspotters.net is an excellent resource providing detailed information about IAH as well as other Houston-area airports, including William P. Hobby and Ellington Field. Mosaic Airport Viewer (www.airportviewer.com) is a free application that allows monitoring of ground movements in real time on your mobile device.
Written by Craig Sieminski (local spotter) and Achim Walther (spot #9). Last Update November 2021
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| (26 votes, average: 4.73 out of 5)
|15L/33R (West)||3,658 m (12,001 ft)|
|15R/33L (West)||3,048 m (10,000 ft)|
|9/27 (South)||3,048 m (10,000 ft)|
|8R/26L (North)||2,866 m (9,402 ft)|
|8L/26R (North)||2,743 m (9,000 ft)|
|Terminal A (West)||Alaska, American, Air Canada Express, Delta, Frontier, jetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, WestJet|
|Terminal B (West—south side)||United Express|
|Terminal C (Central)||United domestic|
|Terminal D (East—north side)||All international carriers except those using Terminal A|
|Terminal E (East—south side)||United international, plus some United domestic|
|Ladder||Recommended for Spot #3—always place at least 10 feet or 3 meters back from the fence|
|Car/Public Transport||Necessary to reach all spots except #5 and #6 (terminal roofs). The area surrounding the airport is too vast to walk between spots on foot.|
|Restrooms||Inside airport terminals; portable bathrooms in parking areas at Spots #1 and #2, as well as in the cell phone waiting parking lot on the northbound JFK Boulevard service road.|
|Drinks/Food||Limited choices before security inside terminals; fast food and chain restaurant options along FM-1960 on the north side of the airport.|
|Hotels||There are plenty of hotels in all kind of price categories around the airport. The Marriott Airport, wich is directly in between the terminals. offers a nice view of the action. More infos here|
|Season||Summer (May-September) is usually hot and unpleasant, particularly during midday. However the mild winter period from October through April is ideal, especially the months of December, January and February when the sun is lowest in the sky. Humidity is less of a problem during the winter, but heat haze especially from paved surfaces can occur at any time of the year.|
|Security||Although there are two official spotting locations at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (Spots #1 and #2), you may wish to call Houston Airport System’s (HAS) Operations phone number of (281) 230-1300 if you plan to spot elsewhere. It is a good idea to call in from spot #2 as well, and you must call from the garages. Identify yourself as an airplane spotter, and Operations personnel will record your name, contact telephone number, vehicle make/model and license plate number, location where you will be taking photos, and the length of time you plan to remain there. These personnel are familiar with local spotters. However, there have been rare instances where spotters are still approached by field officers of the same Operations department or even Houston police, so it is suggested to make note of the person’s name with whom you spoke.|
|15L/33R||This runway is used in tandem with parallel Runway 15R-33L, almost exclusively for departures. The airport favors departures to the southeast via Runways 15L and 15R. As runway 15L is both longer and located closer to the terminals, it is preferred for many eastbound and most widebody departures. The reciprocal Runway 33R is used when there are strong northerly winds. This is more common during the winter months, or after a cold front has moved through the region. The airport avoids using the northern configuration unless necessitated by winds, as it lengthens taxi times and interferes with western arrival flows. Landings on this runway are all but unheard of.|
|15R/33L||This runway is used in tandem with parallel Runway 15L-33R, almost exclusively for departures as noted above. Runway 15R-33L is both shorter and located further from the terminals than 15L/33R, but it is favored by spotters due to its closer proximity to Spot #2 along the western airport boundary. There are excellent views of aircraft departing in either direction. Runway 33L is used with parallel Runway 33R when north winds preclude departure operations to the southeast. Walking further south from Spot #2 during these times affords excellent afternoon and evening photos of aircraft lining up on Runway 33L.|
|9/27||Runway 9-27 was opened in 1989 and lies south and east of the main terminal complex. Its most common use is as an arrival runway (27) when aircraft land toward the west. United and many other domestic and international carriers use this runway. Arrivals from Mexico, southern regions and those flying their downwind to the south of IAH are likely to use Runway 27. In the opposite direction, Runway 9 is frequently deployed for departures during “east flow,” when arrivals land on 8R and 8L. When this configuration is in use, departures are split between Runways 15L and 15R on the west side of the terminal complex and 9 immediately to the south of it. Landings may occur on Runway 9 during peak east flow arrival times, while Runway 27 may be heavily used for departures during strong west as well as northerly winds (in lieu of Runway 33R and 33L).|
|08R/26L||This runway runs immediately to the north of the IAH terminal complex, and is used for landings in either direction. There are several off-airport locations to shoot both 8R and 26L arrivals, as well as the Terminal A parking garage roof to photograph touchdowns on Runway 8R. This is best thought of as an arrival runway for all operators, although cargo departures do occur from Runway 26L, particularly at night during low traffic periods. At peak times, the airport may send many airline departures off of Runway 26L.|
|08L/26R||This is George Bush Intercontinental Airport’s newest and shortest runway, opened in 2003. It lies 1,500 meters (5,000 ft.) to the north of Runway 8R-26L, and is likewise used for arrivals in either direction. During “west flow,” arriving traffic is split between Runways 27, 26L and 26R, while during “east flow” arrivals are commonly sequenced to only 8R or 8L. As with Runway 26L, cargo and certain high profile visitors parked at the East Cargo Complex may favor Runway 26R for departures when traffic volume permits. This is not an easily accessible runway for which to spot movements, and there are no locations where one can remain for an extended period.|
|Spot #1 – Lee Road – 27 Arrivals|
|WHERE||This is IAH’s best publicized spotting location, located on the east side of Lee Road, about 450 meters (0.28 mi.) south of Will Clayton Parkway. Park in the gravel lot, located just north of the approach path to Runway 27. As photos from the parking lot itself are backlit most of the day (except early summer mornings and late summer evenings), it may be advisable to walk about 300 meters (0.2 mi.) south on Lee Road toward the curve, standing to the side of the road where a 747 or 777-300ER is far enough away to fit within your viewfinder. Please use caution as there is no shoulder and vehicles travel rapidly on this road.|
|WHAT||Many domestic arrivals will use this runway, plus a good selection of international arrivals except the A380, 747-8 and An-124 due to wingspan limitations. Planes pass over Lee Road at about 200 feet, so this is excellent for side-on or slightly front/rear-offset photos of arrivals, depending on the position of the sun. The tall chain-link airport security fence precludes touchdown shots, and the planes will be too far away at this point anyway.|
|TIME||Great location for the entire day. Standing south of the approach path is preferred, but one has the option to walk along Lee Road in either direction if the sun has swung past due east or west, as occurs during long summer days.|
|MISC.||A portable bathroom is located in the gravel parking lot, but no other facilities are available. There is a Burger King fast food restaurant connected to a Shell gas station on the north side of Will Clayton Blvd, less than a five-minute drive from the parking lot. Food, snacks and drinks can be purchased there. No shade is available anywhere at this location, so wear sun protection. You may also wish to bring a folding chair to set up either in the parking lot or elsewhere along Lee Road. Although the parking lot is a public spot, you may opt to call in to Airport Operations at (281) 230-1300, particularly if you will be sitting elsewhere along the road. As stated earlier, use extreme caution while walking or standing along the road.|
|FOCAL LENGTH||135-185 mm for A320, 100-160 mm for B772|
|Spot #2 – Rankin Road – 15L/15R and 33R/33L Departures|
|WHERE||From the Hardy Toll Road, take Rankin Road east toward the airport, crossing Aldine Westfield Road and ending in the circle at the western airport boundary. From Spot #1, head south on Lee Road, turning right onto Greens Road at the traffic light. Continue on Greens Road for 3.25 miles, then make another right north onto Aldine Westfield Road, where there is a Valero gas station on the corner. Proceed 1 mile to the next traffic light at Rankin Road, where you will turn right and follow the road to the end. Rankin Road ends at a stop sign, beyond which is a paved circle where you can park your car. (park on the asphalt surface, not in the grass and don’t drive up to the hill!) South of the circle is a long dirt hill that rises above the airport boundary fence. The dirt track leading up to the hill is coned off in the summer. You may stand or set up a chair anywhere along this long hill. Airport Operations knows this site as “Rankin Road.”|
|WHAT||This is the other “official” spotting location, reopened in late 2013. It is the best place to photograph departures at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, and the vantage point and calm environment make this the prime location for most local spotters. During “west flow” days, you will be able to photograph nearly every departure here. Photos of both Runway 15L and 15R are possible with the typical telephoto lens year-round. Walking further south, lineups on 33L occur directly in front of you during rare north flow operations. 33R departures start much further away to the south, and heat haze and distance will impact 33R departure photos on all but the clearest evenings.|
|TIME||Since you are facing east/northeast here, Rankin Road is only a good location for the afternoon (ranging from 4 PM to sunset during the summer but beginning as early as 2 PM during the winter months). The light improves as the sun starts to set behind you in late afternoon and evening. Outstanding photos can be made until dusk and beyond, depending on your skill and equipment.|
|MISC.||Due to ongoing construction in this area involving dirt being removed from or deposited on the hill. Snacks, drinks, and cleaner restrooms are available at several gas stations located along Aldine Westfield Road, or you can find other food options 4 miles to the north along FM-1960. There is no shade here, so bring a chair and sun protection. On summer evenings, mosquitoes can be a nuisance, becoming vicious around nightfall, so carry appropriate spray. It is recommended that you notify Airport Operations of your presence at (281) 230-1300, even though this is a “public” spot.|
|FOCAL LENGTH||120-400 mm for B738, 70-160 mm for B772|
|Spot #3 – “Expressjet” parking lot – 15L and 15R Departures|
|WHERE||This spot is located immediately off the southbound JFK Boulevard service road. Entering the airport northbound on JFK Blvd main lanes, take the “Rental Car facility” exit onto the service road and continue north until it curves left around the tower. Cross the bridge over the main lanes and turn left at the stop sign, remaining on the southbound service road. Turn right into the entrance next to the “UNITED – 17441 Flight Training Complex / 17445 Express Training Complex” sign and continue across the parking lot toward the perimeter fence.|
|WHAT||Here you are on the east side of Runway 15L-33R and 15R-33L. Since light favors this location in the mornings, you will photograph the majority of the airport’s morning departures, which include up to three FedEx widebodies Tue-Fri and often some other cargo departures. This spot offers excellent front three-quarter views of rotating aircraft, particularly from Runway 15L.|
|TIME||This location provides excellent light for departing aircraft from sunrise until mid-late morning. As the sun moves toward the south, the light on the aircraft will worsen. It is then time to photograph arrivals only, or move across to Spot #2.|
|MISC.||This is NOT an official/approved spot, and it is located on private property. Therefore it is recommended to keep a low profile, remain in your vehicle except when taking photos and be respectful if approached. Although rare, you may be asked to leave. As a counterpoint to keeping a low profile, a stepladder or standing on the roof of your vehicle is necessary to avoid the fence in your rotation shots, although photos against the sky can be made from the ground. Always remain at least 10 feet away from the perimeter fence.|
|FOCAL LENGTH||100-400 mm for all aircraft depending on rotation point|
|Spot #4 – Greens Road at Stephenson Road – 15L Departures|
|WHERE||From Spot #1, head south on Lee Road, making a right turn on Greens Road at the traffic light. Continue through the major intersection with JFK Boulevard, and proceed for 1,400 meters (0.8 mi.). Around this area, you will see Morales and then Stephenson Road on your left. You may turn onto Stephenson Road and park in the vacant grass/gravel area.|
|WHAT||Spot #2 is overall superior for Runway 15L/15R departure photos, but from Spot #4 you will be able to take photos as airplanes (particularly widebodies) begin their turns after departing Runway 15L. Often the tower assigns them a right turn all the way toward the north after departure, which may lend itself to very good banking shots. Most narrowbodies will be a bit high here and are better photographed from Spot #2.|
|TIME||Like Spot #2, this is a good location from afternoon through sunset. It’s simply a bit further along the departure path from the 15L/15R runways and you cannot physically see the airplanes until they appear above the tree line.|
|MISC.||Although off the airport property, you may wish to contact Airport Operations at (281) 230-1300 to advise you will be spotting here. Use Morales Road as a reference with regard to your position along Greens Road. There are no facilities nearby|
|FOCAL LENGTH||240 mm for B772, 300 mm or greater for B738|
|Spot #5 – Terminal C Garage Roof – Ramp Movements from Terminals C, D and E|
|WHERE||Level 7 or 8, the top levels of the Terminal C Garage. Entering the airport via either Will Clayton Parkway or JFK Boulevard, follow signs toward “Terminal C,” and then “Terminal C Parking.” Entry will be by way of a helix. From Level 7 or 8 you can see Runway 8R/26L, some north concourse C gates directly in front of you, and look east toward the international aircraft parked at the nearest Terminal D gates. Level 8 allows you to move about more freely to observe in all directions.|
|WHAT||With the ongoing demolition of IAH’s popular Terminal D garage, the Terminal C garage is now the only option for night photography of some international pushbacks from the western end of Terminal D (i.e. D4, D5), as well as night photos of United flights departing Terminals C and E. There are also ample views of the north and south ramps during the day.|
|TIME||Since mostly static aircraft are seen from this location, it lends itself to night photography with a tripod. However, you are predominantly facing north or northwest, so the light is good all day long.|
|MISC.||IT IS REQUIRED AND EXPECTED THAT SPOTTERS CALL AIRPORT OPERATIONS AT (281) 230-1300 BEFORE SPOTTING FROM THE GARAGES. Restroom facilities are available inside the terminal. There are also some limited food options in the terminal outside security. There is no shade, so dress accordingly, and no place to sit down. You may choose to sit inside your car, but then you will not be able to see any ramp movements.|
|FOCAL LENGTH||120 mm for B772 on ramp, 70 mm for ramp overview|
|Spot #6 – Terminal A/B Garage Roof – Ramp Movements and 8R Arrivals|
|WHERE||Level 8, the roof of the Terminal A/B Garage. Entering the airport via either Will Clayton Parkway or JFK Boulevard, follow signs toward “Terminal A” or “Terminal B,” and then “Terminal A/B Parking.” Entry will be by way of a helix, which will take you all the way up to Level 8. There are elevators which take you down inside the nonsecure area of the terminal if desired.|
|WHAT||On “east flow” days, the north side of the Terminal A/B garage provides a good vantage point for Runway 8R arrivals. Arrivals to Runway 8L are too far away to photograph without a long lens, but you can observe these as well. Heat haze is often a problem, but on ideal (particularly winter) days you are able to make some excellent touchdown photos from Runway 8R. You will also observe and be able to photograph aircraft, including international widebodies, taxiing in front of you from the north concourses toward departure Runways 15L and 15R. On the south side of the roof, you will see the Terminal B gates for United Express regional jets, and watch United Airlines aircraft taxi out to Runways 15L and 15R. Photos looking south will be backlit most of the year.|
|TIME||The view north from from Terminal A/B features good light all day long. You may also try some night pictures here using a tripod.|
|MISC.||IT IS REQUIRED AND EXPECTED THAT SPOTTERS CALL AIRPORT OPERATIONS AT (281) 230-1300 BEFORE SPOTTING FROM THE GARAGES. Restroom facilities are available inside the terminal. There are also some limited food options in the terminal outside security. There is no shade, so dress accordingly, and no place to sit down except in one’s car.|
|FOCAL LENGTH||340 mm for A320 on Runway 8R, less for larger aircraft and ramp activity|
|Spot #7 – Service Road – 26L Arrivals|
|WHERE||From Spot #1, take Lee Road north to Will Clayton Parkway, then turn right on Will Clayton and make the first u-turn to proceed west in the opposite direction, toward the airport terminals. After passing the Ramada Inn on the right, turn right at the next traffic light onto Lee Road northbound. Continue north for 460 meters (0.3 mi.) and make the second left, onto an unnamed road crossing a small bridge and running past a grove of trees on the left side. Park your car next to these trees for a view of 26L arrivals.|
|WHAT||From this location, you can photograph arrivals to Runway 26L while they are in the air passing over the East Cargo warehouses. It provides a similar vantage point to Spot #1, but for 26L arrivals instead of 27 arrivals. All carriers may use this runway when the airport is on west flow. On the rare occasions when departures are occurring from Runway 33R and 33L, Runway 26L will NOT be used for any movements.|
|TIME||Like Spot #1, this location is satisfactory all day long except for summer evenings when aircraft may be backlit.|
|MISC.||There are no facilities available for the public here. Food is available at the Burger King and Shell gas station east of here, along the westbound side of Will Clayton Parkway. You can also follow Lee Road 0.9 mi. further north to the intersection with FM-1960, along which you will find more fast food and chain restaurant choices. This is a pleasant and usually shaded place to sit in your car facing east to photograph 26L arrivals, particularly during the winter months. However, it is not an official location and you may be asked to leave|
|FOCAL LENGTH||220 mm for B738, 150 mm to B772|
|Spot #8 – US Customs – 26R Arrivals|
|WHERE||From Spot #7, continue north on Lee Road north toward FM-1960, then turn left onto North Road and head toward the S-turn which crosses a small bridge. You may park in the nearby US Customs parking lot or pause in the road for a quick arrival photo.|
|WHAT||From this location, you can photograph arrivals to Runway 26R while they are in the air passing over FM-1960. The vantage point from the bridge through the sizeable gap in the trees is similar to other arrival spots, although aircraft are a bit higher. Heat haze from FM-1960 can be a challenge year-round even though the aircraft are not that far away.|
|TIME||Like Spot #1 and #7, this location is satisfactory all day long except for summer evenings when aircraft may be backlit.|
|MISC.||Keep a low profile in this area and explicitly point your lens only in the direction of the airplanes. US Customs employees are sensitive to photography of their facility and you should not be surprised if asked to leave. This is a good location to capture a desired 26R arrival or two, but is not ideal to sit here for hours on end.|
|FOCAL LENGTH||350 mm for B738, 270 mm for B772|
|Spot #9 – Rigid Road – 8R Arrivals|
|WHERE||From Spot #2, turn right to head north on Aldine Westfield Road. After about 1.7 miles turn left onto Rigid Road which enters an industrial park area. Prior to the end at Intercontinental Crossing Drive, there is a pull-off on the left side, across from a rectangular retention pond.
There is also a soccer field west of the road and you can reach it over a private driveway. The advantage is that you’ll be out of scope of the street but you get a worse angle.
|WHAT||From this location, you can photograph arrivals to Runway 8R while they are in the air. All carriers may use this runway.|
|TIME||Like Spots #1, #7 and #8, this location is satisfactory all day long except for summer evenings when aircraft may be backlit.|
|MISC.||Photos from this location are unremarkable side-on shots in the air. However, this spot is ideal to capture a particular 8R arrival during east flow, or to shoot general arrivals to Runway 8R when heat haze would be a problem from the Terminal A/B garage roof (Spot #6). For Runway 8L arrivals, one can travel further north along Aldine Westfield Road to the parking lot of Tristar Glass at the corner of Farrell Road (8L arrivals may be heat hazed here except under ideal conditions), or to the Chevron/Fuel Maxx gas station at the corner of Aldine Westfield and Richey Road.|
|FOCAL LENGTH||100-300mm covers most things|
Pictures from the soccer field:
Pictures from the company parking:
Hi all, thanks for the great guide! Airport security has asked that we pass along for Rankin road, that vehicles are not to drive up the hill. Can you please amend the guide to reflect this? Thanks!
Thank for the hint. I have left a note in the description for this location.
I visited spot 2 today (June 22nd 2022). There was no portable bathroom there any more, and the dirt track leading up to the hill was coned off. We walked up onto the hill, and no one bothered us for the 3 hours we was up there, and we did see airport police drive by a few times inside the perimeter so I guess they’re still happy for enthusiasts to be up there.
I have updated the text. Thanks for the update Robert.
Are these spots also for commoners like me who just want to go look at airplanes land and take off or do I need to be a spotter?
Yes–all of the spots are accessible to the public. For casual watching of the airplanes I recommend most Spot #1 – Lee Road, Spot #2 – Rankin Road and the roof of the terminal garages (Spots #5 and #6). It is recommended to call the phone number from the terminal garages, but if you are not taking photos with a large camera you are highly unlikely to be bothered at all.
Spot 2 would probably be your best bet. Bring shade, it’ll be quite toasty.
Can anyone tell me if the EVA Airway Sanrio/Hello Kitty planes still fly into IAH and when the best time to watch for them is? Thank you in advance!
Sorry to ruin your hopes, but B-16703 was repainted to the EVA standard livery back in May of this year.
– spotterguide crew –
The Rankin Road spot is open, and has been for a while. I’d suggest editing the planes certain airlines are using, too.
Also, Southwest began flights here April 2021.
Emirates also flies in the a380 for a daily 5 to 7 arrival and departure.
A good spot for 8L landing I found at around junction of Farnell Rd and Aldine Westfield Rd… Near the Shell garage/Burger King… I sat behind Tristar Glass opposite the Shell.. It was a Sunday so the premises was closed no doubt it may not be accessible during work hours… I called the Airport Ops number to say where I was and they seemed happy for me to be there.. 737 filled frame at about 220mm from this spot.
Can you send me some pics from this location to email@example.com. So we can add it to the guide.
Spot 9 the football fields.. Exercise caution here… I was there on Sunday and was approached by a couple of guys from the football fields.. One asked if my camera was a rocket Launcher!!! I let him have a shot of camera and showed my shots he seemed happy enough.. About an hour later his boss rolled up telling me it was illegal to shoot there and he would call police if I never left… I complied with this
Hi Scott, maybe it is better to avoid this place when a game or training is going on. Then stay at the company spot instead which is on the guide too.
There is an excellent spot under the lights for arriving traffic on 8L at Farrell and Birnamwood. Only big enough for two cars and sometimes traffic can be sparse, but when it’s rush hour, you have some great views of plans coming in 50-100 feet over your head. You can also catch some unique circle to land approaches to 15LR.