EDITORIAL: Flying high

Airport activity increase reflects growth in Valley

Rio Grande Valley airports have been investing heavily lately in improvements, new terminals and runway expansion, and with good reason: they’re getting busier. In fact, the trend might require long-term planners to start thinking beyond local services and consider larger, regional options.

McAllen International Airport recently reported that 2019 was its busiest year on record, with a 20% increase in passenger boardings over the previous year. Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport and Valley International Airport in Harlingen reported similar increases.

Some of the increase reflects an increase in foreign nationals coming to the area seeking residency visas and even asylum. Much of it, however, is driven by the region’s continued population and economic growth That growth is expected to continue; the Valley’s population continues to increase, although the rate of growth reportedly has begun to slow. Of course, we will need an accurate census count to tell the true and complete story of the area’s development.

We do know that business investment is on the rise. All across the Valley major businesses have targeted the area, including energy and fuel companies, medical and educational expansion, industrial companies and yes, aerospace industry. That activity also helps fuel increases in business, convention and entertainment travel to and out of the area.

And as SpaceX testing and launches become consistent and, we hope, scheduling becomes longer-range and better known, we can expect tourist flights to increase as people come to see the launches. Takeoff tourism will only add to the growing numbers of people who come to visit the border, beaches and wildlife preserves.

Valley airports have worked to stay ahead of the increased flights’ demand on airport services and infrastructure. McAllen recently completed $2.6 million in upgrades to a runway and taxiway and cooling tower. Brownsville SPI is expected to complete work later this year on a new, 91,000-square-foot, $43.8 million terminal. VIA is upgrading its terminal’s upper concourse area, and soon will begin work on adding 1,100 feet to its chief runway. The $17.8 million project that is expected to be completed by early 2023 will extend what already is the Valley’s longest runway to 9,400 feet, allowing for larger aircraft and heavier cargo loads.

Even South Texas International Airport in Edinburg, which is the base for many local, state and federal agencies and emergency flight services, soon will begin applying a $5 million allocation from the latest state legislative session for upgrades and expansion.

With all the growth and increased activity, the Valley’s new regional metropolitan organization, which makes long-term transportation planning, might need to keep an eye on things.

Could the number of local airports eventually lead to congested skies and make a large, regional airport a better option for commercial flights?

Such a consideration would be pretty far down the road, if at all, but it would be a growing pain, a sign of continued progress. And that could be worth the inconvenience such a move might cause.