HARLINGEN — The air races are heating up in the Rio Grande Valley.
Just two years ago, McAllen International Airport provided just over half of the Valley’s total passenger numbers, with Valley International Airport in the high 30s and Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport hovering around 10 percent.
Yet for January, inbound and outbound passenger totals show Harlingen and McAllen in a dead heat, with McAllen at 56,454 passengers and Harlingen at 54,143. For 2018, Valley International was up 12.4 percent in passenger flights, which far outstripped smaller increases posted by McAllen (3.39 percent) and Brownsville (3.69 percent) for the year.
The gap of past years has narrowed with the addition of Frontier Airlines last year with its flight offerings to Denver and Chicago. That gives the Harlingen airport six passenger carriers — Frontier, Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Sun Country Airlines and now American Airlines.
With American entering the mix this month with three daily flights to and from Dallas, it seems likely Valley International will surpass McAllen to become the busiest passenger hub in the Rio Grande Valley.
“Really, I haven’t looked at those numbers, the ‘Where are we? What is the market share inside the Valley?” Marv Esterly, director of aviation at Valley International, said in an interview last week. “I know that we were really close in January.
“Of course, Brownsville is not there — they’re significantly less,” he added. “It’s not a competition, but there’s always a friendly competition and rivalry between airports that are so close together.”
VIA leads in cargo
Valley International is by far the leading airport in the Valley when it comes to air cargo.
The airport has moved from the mid-80s in U.S. cargo hub rankings to around the mid-70s as of last fall.
They expect this year to move into the high 50s, or on about a par with big airports like McCarran International Airport in St. Louis.
Last year, FedEx moved some of its flights from Laredo to Harlingen, and between FedEx and DHL there are presently five flights per day in and out of VIA hauling cargo across the nation.
Flights on American Airlines could put the Harlingen airport at the top when it comes to passengers, too.
The airline will be flying its regional jets, Embraer ERJ-140s, which can hold 41 passengers. Even if the planes average flights which are only three-quarters full, that would mean an extra 66,000 passengers a year for Harlingen, or roughly the equivalent of a good extra month’s worth of passengers.
“We are definitely going to be filling gates,” Esterly said. “I think we still have plenty of capacity to add additional passengers after that. The winter months will be definitely stronger than the summer months as the Winter Texans and our Sun Country and Delta flights will discontinue in May and then pick up again next year.
“Winter months are going to be pretty busy, and we’ve made some preparations to make sure that we can meet that demand,” he added. “We’re currently looking at additional gates, or jetways, here at the airport. We have five bridges now and it looks like we’ll be at seven by the time that project is done.”
The Harlingen airport recently completed a $12 million, six-year overhaul which has added new terrazzo tile in the terminal, new ceiling tiles over the terminal, restrooms have been overhauled and pipes replaced, a second emergency generator was added, along with new air chillers, fan coil units, a new HVAC system and a new cooling tower. LED lighting both in the terminal and on the runways has been installed, too,
In May, VIA opened a state-of-the-art, $3.8 million aircraft fire and rescue facility.
A multimillion-dollar overhaul to rip out and replace World War II-era concrete along taxiways is about to begin soon, and plans are in the works to take VIA’s longest runway — 17R/35L — from 8,300 feet to 9,400 feet.
“The funny thing is, that in the 30 years or so that I’ve been working in airports, when times are slow and we talk about things and imagine things, and at that point in time one of the things we always say is, ‘Wow, if something happens, we’re going to need more parking.’ ‘If something happens, we’re going to need more jet bridges.’ ‘If something happens, we’re going to need more counter space,’” Esterly said.
“And we always sit back and say, that would be a good problem to have,” he added. “It’s funny how we have to continually remind ourselves that those are good problems.”