MCALLEN, Texas – The coronavirus pandemic has brought City of McAllen officials closer to the airlines that operate out of its international airport.

This was the message McAllen Aviation Director Liz Suarez delivered at a news conference to announce Allegiant Airlines would be running seasonal nonstop flights from McAllen to Nashville this summer.

“The coronavirus pandemic has had a big impact. Overall, for the calendar year 2020, we were down 53 percent,” Suarez told the Rio Grande Guardian, referring to the amount of economic activity at McAllen International Airport.

“One of the things I think the pandemic did is brought partners closer, surviving all the challenges we had to survive. I think it is true of the industry as a whole. We have had to pool our resources together.”

Suarez said she is talking to airline executives every other week. “That was unheard of. So, the coronavirus has brought some of these partnerships extremely close.”

Suarez acknowledged that, just as at airports across the nation, business travel through her airport was suffering more than tourism.

“I think it is a really interesting change in the industry. We are seeing business travel down by 80 percent, industry-wide. And we are seeing leisure travel down only by 50 percent. I think that the trend will continue, slowly, leisure travel will continue to tick upward and I think it will take a little bit longer for business.”

That said, Suarez does not see any longterm implications for business travel. Yes, the business community has gotten used to Zooms, rather than in-person meetings, but, eventually, things will get back to normal.

“I find it hard to believe it will be a long term impact. I do think people will be a lot more conservative when it comes to business but I still think there are some things where we have to be meeting in person to be successful. I do think there will be a return to that,” Suarez said.

“I think the vaccination process will be a key determining factor. We have segments of the population that have already started that vaccination process. I think that segment… we have got retirees, they want to get out, they are ready to travel. I can see that starting up.”

As for the announcement about Nashville, Suarez said: “We are really excited about Nashville. In many ways it is a no-brainer, the airline is trying to build that hub, it is leisure, the City does not have to invest a million dollars in a revenue guarantee. It is even a good opportunity to gauge what the community is willing to do and what destinations they are looking for. And whether or not tourism is really picking up or not.”

Asked if the McAllen airport has the infrastructure in place to handle a return to pre-COVID traffic, Suarez said: “We are always working on infrastructure projects. For us these are a 20 year cycle. It takes five years to get the money, five years to go through the environmental process, and then a whole process of getting the local match. I was telling one of my assistants, it takes 20 years to do anything, really, because of all the federal requirements and all the different funding mechanisms. We are always working on improvements. We have a long term master plan. The next 20 years are charted for us.”

Also speaking at the news conference was Roy Rodriguez, the McAllen city manager. The news conference was held before the current cold front arrived, so he described the day as “beautiful” for the Rio Grande Valley.

“I am super happy to be here today. Today is an awesome day, a beautiful day in the Rio Grande Valley. In spite of the difficult challenges that we face throughout this pandemic, McAllen International Airport remains a gateway to essential travel,” Rodriguez said.

“Like the mayor said, it is more than just numbers. The fact that we have got more passengers than anyone (in the Valley) is great. But people realize how awesome and special this airport is. We have worked extremely closely with our airline and business partners to endure these most difficult times. We are proud of the close bond that has been forged in light of so many challenges.”

Rodriguez said one of the important bonds the City of McAllen and its airport leadership has developed over the years is with Allegiant. 

“Our partnership with Allegiant dates back to 2006 when they launched the Las Vegas air service. This has become one of this airline’s most successful routes in the country. And it has paved the way for seasonal nonstop leisure destinations to Orlando and Los Angeles,” Rodriguez explained.

“We are so excited to help them announce their latest summer destination today. For us, today’s announcement gives us a positive glimpse into the beginning of an economic recovery. But, more importantly, today we celebrate lasting partnerships that despite the challenges, endure and grow. So, thank you for being here. We are excited about what we are about to announce.”

The announcement was that Allegiant is introducing a seasonal, nonstop, Sunday-Thursday schedule between McAllen and Nashville, Tennessee, starting May 27 and ending August 15. The lowest fare one way is $59 one way, through a current online promotion.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling also spoke at the news conference. Afterwards he told the Rio Grande Guardian:

“The coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge for us. The numbers are down for our airlines, and at our international bridges. COVID has probably hit the border economy more than any place in the country. We will weather it, though. We like good news and this is good news. Let’s go to Nashville.”

Darling asked whether any other airline is currently announcing additional routes.

“You do not see anybody adding flights. I think Allegiant sees an opportunity here. They are very successful in what they have and I think they see that success growing in another fun place. If you hop on a plane for sixty bucks and go to Nashville for a weekend, that is a fun trip. This is a great addition to our inventory here.”

Asked how much business has dropped at the international bridges, Darling said 50 to 60 percent.

“It is down for the bridges because they (the federal government) have stopped so-called non-essential travel. These are challenging times for the border. We will get through it. Everybody, get vaccinated, still wear your mask. We will get through this together and we will come back strong. We will,” Darling said.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows McAllen Mayor Jim Darling at a news conference held at McAllen International Airport to announce new, seasonal, nonstop flights between McAllen and Nashville, Tennessee.

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