HARLINGEN, RGV – The Rio Grande Valley would benefit enormously if its three commercial airports, based in Brownsville, Harlingen, and McAllen, were to merge into one major regional entity.

This is the view of Michael Browning, aviation director for Valley International Airport in Harlingen. At a Harlingen Economic Vitality Forum at TSTC on Saturday, Browning listed the advantages of a super, regional, airport.

“We have three commercial airports in the Valley which is kind of unusual. You do not find this in many places around the country, at least for this size of market. But, that’s what we have here. We have McAllen to the west of us and Brownsville to the south of us and we are all vying for air services, trying to get another airline or expand the current airline services,” Browning said.

“It’s total competition, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The problem with that is having three commercial airlines in the Valley splits up the Valley’s market. If we were able to somehow come to a consensus and decide that we need a regional airport in the Valley I cannot tell you how much better an air service we would have out of the Valley, with new, non-stop destinations, more frequencies; better aircraft. It would be a tremendous impact on the Valley if we could somehow consolidate into one airport.”

But, Browning said, at the moment consolidation is simply not up for discussion. “It is just not going to happen anytime soon, I don’t think,” Browning told the audience.

Browning has worked at VIA since 1989. He first worked there as assistant aviation director and then, in 2000, became aviation director. “I know how other communities feel about their airport. I have seen no inclination on their part to give up their airports. It is sad for the Valley,” Browning told the Guardian, following his remarks at the forum.

Asked why having one regional airport would make economic sense, Browning told the Guardian: “It is a real shame (we do not have one regional airport). If you concentrate your market into one airport our air service would increase greatly. Our non-stop destinations would increase greatly. The equipment used in the Valley by the airlines would be much better. It would be a win-win for everyone in the Valley.

“The connectivity that would be generated from one airport would be enormous. It would allow non-stop destinations like, maybe, Chicago, or Salt Lake City, something like that. The greater access you have to other points in the country the more business connections you are going to have. It would be very important for economic development down here. It just don’t see it happening.”

In his remarks at the forum, Browning said VIA is “an outstanding facility that is easy to brag about.” He said there can be little argument that it is the “finest” commercial airport south of San Antonio. “If you look at our two competing airports in the Valley, McAllen and Brownsville, they cannot hold a candle to what we have here in Harlingen.” He said VIA has the longest runway, at 8,300 feet, no noise restrictions, and no environmental issues. He said there is plenty of capacity to expand and that its passenger terminal, built in 1990, still looks modern. “We still get compliments about that building,” Browning said.

Unlike other commercial airports in the Valley, Browning said VIA does not get local funding from the city. He said Brownsville has “incentive” money to lure airlines and VIA is “going to have to work on that to attract new airlines.”

Browning also pointed out that VIA does not have a port of entry designation, unlike its rivals in Brownsville and McAllen. “Our goal in the last few years has been to convince Customs that we need to be a port of entry and to seek financial services from Customs to help us with commercial airline services in Mexico. So far, we have been unable to convince them to do that simply because they say we have two ports of entry down here already at the other two airports and they do not believe there is a need for a third. But we are continuing to work on that. The mayor (Chris Boswell) has been very active in trying to get our Washington advocates to press our position to those people in Customs and hopefully we can make some headway here very soon.”

Browning also spoke about future plans for VIA. He said a project to expand the airport is loosely titled Harlingen Airport City. He ran a video that showed a futuristic-looking VIA and said Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is a good role model to follow.

“Look at communities like Grapevine and Euless and Irving, all those communities around the airport, they are exploding. DFW Airport is the main driver for economic development in North Texas. There is just no doubt about that. Are we going to be a DFW? No. But, we can certainly do something on a much smaller scale. We’ve got the ingredients. We have got TSTC across the street from us. We have got the new university with the medical center, we have got the RAHC; we’ve got Valley Baptist. We have got the Port of Brownsville, the Port of Harlingen. There are many, many, key ingredients here to make all this happen (over) the next ten, 15, 20 years.”

One of the big projects happening at VIA, Browning said, will be development of 450 acres of largely farmland to the east of the airport. He said he would like to think the project would include manufacturing for the aviation industry, along with light industrial, business, corporate, retail and, possibly, some residential development. “It is a wonderful opportunity for us. I would like to thank Mr. (Richard) Franke, our chairman, for developing a vision for the airport. He has done an excellent job. It will be a first class development.”

Browning said VIA is also working with Harlingen EDC and American Electric Power to become site certified with McCallum Sweeney Consulting, which helps companies find sites to move to. Browning said he first learned about McCallum Sweeney Consulting in 2001 when Boeing was being courted by Harlingen to build an assembly plant for its 787 Dreamliner jet airliner. He said that when all the questionnaires are complete, which could be by the end of 2014, McCallum Sweeney Consulting “will know our airport better than anyone else in the country.”