Valley International Airport nears end of six-year, $12 million upgrade

The final phases of a $12 million, six-year modernization of Valley International Airport are now wrapping. The new terrazzo tile is in place, and work crews are replacing the panels of the dome above the terminal atrium. (Valley Morning Star)

Showing off the sinuous curves of the new blue and white terrazzo tile floor, Marv Esterly and Bryan Wren are quick to say the new flooring is merely one of the more visible changes at the airport as the culmination of six years of phased projects comes to a conclusion.

Restrooms have been ripped up and modernized, with new pipes replacing the old iron pipes, walls were repainted, a new generator was added (they now have two, a backup for the backup), new air chillers, fan coil units, a new HVAC system and a new cooling tower were installed, and LED lights both inside and outside the facility shine brightly in what Wren wryly describes as “literally a night-and-day difference.”

Last May, VIA opened a state-of-the-art, $3.8 million aircraft fire and rescue facility.

The modernization of the electrical grid and the efficiencies produced by the new cooling system have dropped the average monthly power bill from about $35,000 to $20,000, a more than 40-percent savings.

“It’s not just all lipstick on the outside,” says Esterly, director of aviation at VIA.

NO DEBT NECESSARY

The modernization of the Valley’s second-busiest passenger airport by enplanements after McAllen-Miller International Airport has come at a cost of $12 million.

“All these projects, we planned them over a period of six years … with a mix of funds — AIP (federal Airport Improvement Program) grant money, PFC (passenger facility charge) and some local funds that were included,” Wren, the assistant director of aviation, said during a tour earlier this week. “We were able to do this and save this over six years so that we wouldn’t take on any debt, and we did it the right way financially, the fiduciarily responsible way, so we were able to fund these projects and not take on a penny of debt.”

Esterly says the airport’s ability to modernize and remain debt-free brings benefits not just to airlines and air freight carriers at the airport, but passengers, too.

“Air carriers look at an airport and look at what kind of revenues they can make and if they can keep ticket prices lower for our passengers, because they don’t have as much in capital expenditures or overhead, then they’ll be able to pass those cost savings over to the travelers as well,” Esterly said.

MORE AIRLINES, CAPACITY

From overhead comes the sound of power tools as one of the final phases of the modernization takes place.

Work crews are climbing atop the massive white roof panels which form a dome over the terminal’s atrium, removing the old, yellowed panels and replacing them with new and lighter ones. The old ones are not just sun-faded, they were damaged by hail sometime in the past.

“The panels are a little bit brighter and also reflect the sun a little bit better without affecting any air traffic,” Wren says. “It reflects the heat absorption, not the light.”

Frontier Airlines recently began direct flights to Denver and Chicago, and in March American Airlines will add passenger service. Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Sun County Airlines all offer passenger service into and out of Harlingen.

“We love each of our airlines equally,” Esterly says. “It’s not just about bringing new service in, or new carriers in, its about also adding additional capacity in the market that we already have. So a larger aircraft will add additional capacity.

“United’s done that recently with the ERJ-175,” he adds of the larger Embraer jets which have standard seating for 78 passengers. “Adding capacity makes it more convenient for our customers and improves the service here.”

In 2018, the airport recorded a 12 percent increase in passenger enplanements.

The airport is about to embark on a $15.5 million repaving job that will replace some worn and cracked runway apron that dates to the time it was called Harlingen Army Airfield.

Plans are also in the works to lengthen the airport’s and the Valley’s longest runway, 17R/35L, from 8,301 feet to 9,400 feet to accommodate larger, wide-body jets.

MODERN FEEL

A new advertising agency was hired a year ago, and the result is visible inside the terminal. New displays are brighter and sharper.

“You’ll see a lot of LED signs and back-lit tension fabric signs that are much sharper and crisper and look at lot more modern than the old fluorescent tube lights,” Esterly says. “In doing that we also were able to increase revenue to the airport, because the new, modern advertising actually attracted more businesses to advertise in the terminal.”

Yet of all the improvements, the $2.1 million terrazzo tile flooring may be the star.

Installed by Mion Terrazzo Tile and Marble Co. of Harlingen and completed just two weeks ago, the tile replaced a 1980s-vintage brown and pink tile flooring which had seen its best days years ago. Esterly and Wren are happy to say the contractor, working at night mostly, was able to complete the project without any part of the terminal ever being shut down to the public.

“This floor’s kind of modernized it,” Esterly says. “It gives it a more open feel, and a larger feel to it.”

Standing above the airport’s logo, “VIA,” Esterly says embedding it into the terrazzo wasn’t part of the original contract that was bid.

“The contractor came back and said, ‘How about your logo in the floor?’” Esterly recalls. “And we’re going like, well, we thought that would be a lot of extra expense to do it, and he turned around and goes, ‘I really like this place, and I want to showcase this,’ and he actually put our logo in the floor and didn’t charge us. It was really nice of him.”

It may be an international airport, but in many ways the facility resembles a house, if you think about it like Esterly.

“One project led to another,” Esterly says. “It’s like you do the floor, and ‘Oh no! Now the ceiling’s going to look terrible.’ So the ceiling is done and then you look at the walls and go, ‘Gosh, you’ve gotta paint!’”

The terrazzo at least will provide easy clean-up if any paint from the walls splashes down, and Esterly and Wren say like all the improvements at VIA, the new floor will be easier and cheaper to maintain. They bought a new floor cleaner “that’s like a Zamboni,” Wren says, referring to the iconic ice-rink refinisher.

“In everything we do, one of the things we look at is aesthetics, but also how it affects our bottom line,” Esterly says. “How long will the floor last?”

“It will outlast the building, about 50 years,” Wren answers. “It will outlast us.”

MORE INFORMATION

Valley passenger flights 2018

>> Valley International — Up 12 percent

>> McAllen-Miller International — Up 3.39 percent

>> Brownsville-SPI International — Up 3.69 percent

Source: FAA, figures for calendar year 2018