It took some time, but American Airlines passenger planes are once again nosing up to the jetways to disembark and take on passengers at Valley International Airport.

On Sunday, for the first time since 2001, American resumed passenger service to VIA, and will continue with three daily direct flights between Harlingen and Dallas-Fort Worth, or 21 passenger flights per week.

“I want to thank everyone for taking time out of their busy schedules to come here, and to thank American Airlines for believing in us here in the Rio Grande Valley and in the City of Harlingen,” Marv Esterly, director of aviation at VIA, told officials at a dedication of the new passenger service Monday.

“Air service development is probably one of the hardest things we have to do here at Valley International Airport for our staff,” added Esterly, who has directed VIA operations for four years. “I just want to tell you it takes a professional and great staff to orchestrate an airline coming in, and I want to tell you that it takes a lot of partners, and without our partners we have in the Rio Grande Valley, we could never get this done.”

The addition of American brings the number of airlines offering passenger service at VIA to six — American, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Sun Country Airlines and Frontier Airlines, which began service last fall.

American’s Harlingen flights will be made on Embraer ERJ-145s, a regional jet that can carry 50 passengers.

American’s arrival also coincides with the culmination of a long and expensive renovation effort at VIA, which cost $12 million and took six years.

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell referenced the dramatic overhaul of the terminal, including new terrazzo tile flooring, lighting and new roof panels overhead.

“You just look around — it feels like a whole new different place, it looks like a different place,” he said, “because now it has American Airlines to round out all of our air service here at Valley International Airport. It’s a great day to be here.”

South Padre Island’s tourist industry and Mayor Dennis Stahl were key players in negotiations to bring American back. The airport operates a shuttle bus service between Harlingen and the Island.

“This flight today celebrates the growing interest in Texas tourism,” Stahl said. “Valley International Airport and our city, South Padre Island, have had a longstanding partnership in destination development, and we’re ecstatic to be taking this step forward, spreading the word about Texas’ best beach.”

Both American and Frontier were attracted to the Harlingen airport with a new $1.55 million incentive program called the Air Service Development Program introduced by Harlingen officials late last year. American will receive an incentive payment of $834,000 to fly into Valley International under the program.

But there are already signs that the investment into the new air passenger carriers is paying off. Valley International posted a 12.5 percent increase in passenger enplanements in 2018, and in January, recorded numbers which were 19.4 percent higher than a year ago.

Dale Morris, senior consultant/governmental affairs for American, said it was a “long journey” to reach agreement on American’s return.

“It speaks to the fact that the respect that American Airlines had for Marv — having worked with him at other airports and the way he is so fiscally responsible, the way he runs an airport, his fairness, and a lot of those factors come into play,” Morris told the crowd. “Because nowadays, there is a shortage of airplanes and pilots, and we just can’t put airplanes anywhere.”

Rick Kelley