Late last Friday, anyone looking up may have noticed airline passenger jets, one right after the other, stacking up over the city to make their final approaches to land at Valley International Airport.
By around 4 p.m., airport passengers, flight crews and airport workers witnessed all five of VIA’s jetways in simultaneous use as passengers either boarded or departed those planes.
The packed jetways used to transition passengers from terminal to plane or vice versa seem to be an indicator that Valley International’s 12.5 percent increase in passenger enplanements in 2018 is set to rise again this year.
The Harlingen airport offers passenger service on Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Sun Country Airlines and Frontier Airlines, which began offering direct flights to Denver and Chicago in November. In March, American Airlines will be added to the passenger carrier mix.
“ Once American starts up, that number will significantly increase,” Bryan Wren, assistant director of aviation at Valley International, said yesterday.
Wren said all five gates were in use Friday due to scheduled flights, two on Southwest, and the others on Delta, Sun Country and United, and were not merely stacking up due to weather-related delays. In fact, a casino charter also was near the gates at the time.
“ It’s a great thing not only for us but the entire Valley,” Wren added. “With six air carriers, we envision that this is eventually going to lower the cost of airfare for people in the Valley because now there are going to be six airlines all competing at one airport.”
McAllen International airport has four passenger air carriers — Aeromar, American, United and Allegiant Air. Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport offers flights with carriers American and United.
Wren said his airport is “well within” its capacity to handle even more passenger traffic, but the airport is planning for the long-term once American’s flights begin.
“ We are in the planning stages right now of adding a sixth jetway, which would be Gate 1,” he said. “We’re going to start the design and planning immediately, and we’re going to actually open bids on that.
“ We’re going to add Jetway 1 and then remove and replace Jetways 2 and 4 depending on how the numbers come in,” Wren added. “Regardless, we’re definitely going to add Jetway 1 because we need that sixth bridge. That gives us a lot more options and increases our capacity at the terminal.”
In addition to more passenger traffic, Valley International is improving its profile nationally as an air cargo hub.
The airport now ranks around 76 th for air cargo in the country. Wren has said by the end of the current fiscal year, Valley International will rank in the high 50s, or on a par with airports like McCarran International in St. Louis.
This year FedEx announced it moved some flights from Laredo to Harlingen and between FedEx and DHL there are currently five flights per day in and out of VIA hauling cargo across the nation.
The airport also has embarked on a plan to lengthen its longest runway, 17R/35L, which already is the longest in the Rio Grande Valley. The runway will be lengthened from 8,301 feet to 9,400 feet to accommodate larger, wide-body jets.
In May, airport officials announced the airport’s biggest project since 1990, a $15.5 million upgrade to replace 1930s-era concrete on taxiways and aircraft parking areas. The project will replace those to a depth of three feet and should be completed in January 2020.
Also in May, the airport opened a state-of-the-art, $3.8 million aircraft fire and rescue facility.
The airport also added new air chillers and fan coil units, a new HVAC system and new LED lighting, which have combined to cut utility costs by 30 percent.
The airport is currently replacing its 1980s-era ceramic tile with blue and gray epoxy terrazzo at a cost of $2.1 million.
VIA also plans to replace the flat roof on the terminal building and then work on replacing the dome over the terminal lobby.
Last year the airport added about 500 feet of usable runway area to Runway 17R/35L with construction work that improved the turning angle for pilots at the south end.
Most of the funding for the projects has been provided by the FAA, Airport Improvement Program grants or funds from the facility fee the airport charges each passenger.
By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer