McALLEN, RGV – An absorbing discussion took place at the recent South Texas College Inno’ 2015 conference on whether the Rio Grande Valley should have one, supersized, regional airport.

Under such an arrangement, McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville would collapse their current airports, pool resources and share in the profits of one large airport, probably situated in the Mid Valley. The case for a regional airport is that it would mean more non-stop destinations, more frequencies and better aircraft.

Mario Reyna, dean of business & technology at South Texas College.
Mario Reyna, dean of business & technology at South Texas College.

Mario Reyna, STC’s dean of technology and business, posed the question: is time to start planning for a regional airport? Five panelists had an opportunity to respond and three did.

Rose Benavidez, executive director of Starr County Industrial Foundation, and Keith Patridge, president and CEO of McAllen Economic Development Corporation, said they support the status quo. Gus Garcia, executive director of Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, said he favored planning for a new regional airport and argued that it ought to be in Edinburg near I-69 Central and the proposed Hidalgo County Loop.

Sergio Contreras, executive director of Pharr Economic Development Corporation, and Julian Alvarez, president of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, were also on the panel but did not weigh in on the issue.

In her remarks, Benavidez said in her mind the Valley already has two regional airports, McAllen and Harlingen and that they serve the upper and lower Valley markets just fine. In his remarks, Patridge said those Valley cities with passenger airlines – McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville – have already made large investments. “Everybody has their infrastructure in place,” Patridge said.

Gus Garcia makes case for a regional airport

After the panel discussion ended the Rio Grande Guardian asked Edinburg EDC’s Garcia to elaborate on his pitch for a new regional airport.

“The new Tres Lagos subdivision that is being built in northwest McAllen and west Edinburg really lends itself to a new regional airport. Couple that with the expansion of UT-Rio Grande Valley and it is clear that much expansion is happening to the north. If the population is growing north and there is congestion to the south then we have to start thinking of a new airport,” Garcia said.

Gus Garcia, executive director of Edinburg EDC.
Gus Garcia, executive director of Edinburg EDC.

“With the new loop, which Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization and Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority are putting together to transport people north, we certainly have to think hard on which location is going to give us the best access to an airport. There is going to be a choke point somewhere down the road.”

Another factor to consider, Garcia argued, is the growth in economic trade with Mexico and the projected population growth of the Valley.

“If you have 3.2 million people and Mexico gets better with all the investment going in there with the Burgos Basin, the reforms to telecom, etc., it is just going to get bigger and better. If that $1.3 trillion in economic impact takes place, as BBVA stated in its report, that creates 2.5 million jobs. That is more than the population we have in the Valley. Think about it. If it grows the way it is supposed to, congestion becomes an issue. If we continue to grow, as everyone is predicting, how are we going to transport people? Edinburg has I-69, and the loop, all the focus is going to be on that corridor.”

Garcia said the time is right to start studying the possibility of a new, supersized, regional airport. He said the Federal Aviation Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation should be consulted about conducting a study.

“Twenty years from now, we do not want to be stuck behind the eight ball. We want to be in front of it. I think forward-thinkers and visionaries will say, where are we going to be in 20, 30, 40 years? Let’s start investing in that now so we are not behind the eight ball trying to figure out where we are going to find $200 million to create a regional hub for air transportation. Especially if we are going to have a population of ten million in 50 years. It is a big issue that we need to start thinking about now,” Garcia said.

Elizabeth Suarez makes case against a regional airport

After the panel discussion ended, the City of McAllen’s director of aviation, Elizabeth Suarez, gave the keynote speech. She touched on the issue of a regional airport during her speech and was not supportive. Later she gave an interview to the Rio Grande Guardian.

“If you were to pull the origin destination reports and load factor reports for the airlines and pull Harlingen, which is our (McAllen’s) biggest competitor regionally, they are providing service non-stop to Houston, Dallas and Austin. I don’t see how merging is going to change that. We supply non-stop to Houston, Dallas and other destinations. The only one we are missing is Austin. Austin is very low-performing from Harlingen with 50 to 60 percent load factors. There may not be long-term sustainability for a route with such low yield,” Suarez said.

“The market is going to dictate it. I don’t believe a regional concept expands the market opportunity. Where we need to invest is on our economic development side and ask, what connections we are growing, from a business community perspective. That is what is going to drive our service development, not whether facilities are merged.”

McAllen International Airport is the biggest airport in the Valley for air passenger numbers. It has 50 percent of the market, with Harlingen capturing 39 percent and Brownsville 11 percent. Suarez pointed out that McAllen was the 18th fastest growing airport in the country in 2014 and that the City of McAllen has just made a $26.4 million investment in the airport, resulting in 55,000 square feet of extra terminal capacity.

Elizabeth Suarez, aviation director for the City of McAllen.
Elizabeth Suarez, aviation director for the City of McAllen.

Asked if McAllen International Airport has the capacity to grow to meet future demand, Suarez said: “Absolutely we are big enough for the growth. We feel really comfortable with current market demand and growing into the future as well. When we put together our initial expansion plan it incorporated a bigger footprint with a lot more gates. Even with what we have now we are comfortably supporting demand.”

Suarez said she bases her views on a regional airport from a business perspective.

“I think the market is showing trends that are not line with this regional concept. Harlingen has made a huge investment in infrastructure. I see them, perhaps, changing the priorities for their airport. You hear talk of their Aerotropolis and that they are really looking at general aviation. Great, we celebrate that. Brownsville has done wonderful. With all the economic changes they are undergoing we see them making an investment in their airport. Great. At the end of the day people are going to go where it is convenient, accessible and competitive,” Suarez said.

“Running an airport is a tough business. I would exercise great caution when considering a new regional airport. Is Edinburg enough of a distance away to support an airport? Why would an airline choose Edinburg over McAllen if they have been in McAllen for 20 some years? What would drive that? It is very difficult for me to say the market would support two airports in such a small area. I think we very comfortably support the three (McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville) that we have now.”

Michael Browning’s view on an RGV regional airport

Just before he retired as aviation director for Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Michael Browning spoke about the idea of a regional airport. Browning said he was for it, in a speech given at Texas State Technical College in January, 2014.

“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.

Michael Browning, former director of Valley International Airport.
Michael Browning, former director of Valley International Airport.

“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.”

Immediately following his speech, Browning told the Rio Grande 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.”

Browning added: “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,” Browning said.

Editor’s Note: Click here to read the Jan. 2014 story on Michael Browning’s speech at Texas State Technical College in Harlingen.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows the airports of McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville.