HARLINGEN — Valley International Airport’s Runway 17R/35L, at 8,301 feet, is the longest in the region.
Airport officials intend to keep it that way.
Airport managers are preparing documents including a benefit-cost analysis and an environmental assessment for the Federal Aviation Administration in hopes of gaining approval to increase the length of the runway to the south to 9,400 feet.
Officials will make their presentation to the FAA by May, and are confident they’ll be green-lighted. If approved, the FAA will provide up to $15 million in federal funds for design, land acquisition and construction, which could begin in summer 2020.
“We did get the FAA to agree to allow us to do what is called a benefit-cost analysis and the environmental assessment and that has been put in our budget which was approved in September by the airport board and the city commission,” said Bryan Wren, assistant director of aviation at VIA.
“As long as the benefit-cost analysis and the environmental assessments come back positive — and we’re pretty sure they will — the benefit-cost analysis shows we do have an existing need, because we’ve got FedEx and DHL flying the wide bodies on restricted flight rules because of the runway length,” he added.
Don’t forget cargo
The Harlingen airport has undergone multiple improvements at a cost of tens of millions of dollars over the past few years, and recently announced Frontier Airlines and American Airlines will soon begin offering passenger flights to and from Denver, Chicago and Dallas.
Those carriers will bring the number of airlines offering passenger flights at VIA to six, adding to incumbent carriers Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines and Sun Country Airlines.
Yet those splashy announcements about increased passenger flights may have overshadowed the rapid growth of VIA as a serious border hub for air cargo.
“We were the 83rd-ranking airport in the nation for cargo out of all the airports,” Wren said. “We’re now down around 76, and by the end of this fiscal year we’ll be in the high 50s. That will put us above airports like McCarran in St. Louis.”
Earlier this year, FedEx announced it was moving some flights from Laredo to Harlingen, and between FedEx and DHL there are presently five flights per day in and out of VIA hauling cargo across the nation.
Those air carriers operate wide-body jets in Harlingen — Boeing 767-300s, Airbus A300s and McDonnell-Douglas MD-10s. Currently, they are flying into and out of the airport under restricted flight rules due to the weight of the planes and the length of runway 17R/35L.
Due to safety requirements, the FedEx and DHL jets aren’t operating at full cargo capacity, and some packages are being left behind to lessen the overall weight of the aircraft.
Wren said another drawback for air cargo carriers is the runway length for these big planes means not just fewer packages going out, but higher maintenance costs, too.
When using the VIA runway, FedEx and DHL pilots must brake harder, or push their airplanes’ engines harder with their reverse thrusters, to slow the jets once they touch down. These operations, although necessary, translate into higher maintenance costs.
“All this is being done to enhance safety, to enhance the capacity issues with the cargo and our airlines, but also to keep the airport as a regional airport in the Valley,” Wren said.
Room to grow
Valley International is fortunate in having readily available agricultural land surrounding the airport for expansion. Indeed, the airport owns 500 acres outside its current fence line, but will have to purchase 30 acres of farmland to the south of Runway 17R/35L to meet safety requirements.
“We already own a large portion of that land and there’s a very small strip of 30 acres that we would need to purchase,” Wren said. “There’s already what is called a ‘navigation easement’ that restricts any type of building, that restricts the use of that land. The land can only be used for agriculture and even then the type of agriculture is restricted because of wildlife issues.”
The lengthened runway won’t actually extend into these 30 acres, but for safety reasons the purchase needs to be made to extend a restricted Runway Protection Zone — think of it as an imaginary cone — from the end of the runway south to meet FAA requirements.
“There’s no waterway, no water sources, no homes have to be bought, we have no environmental issues and we have no noise issues,” Wren said of the required environmental assessment. “I’m not the professional person doing it, but it’s safe to say it’s probably going to be a slam-dunk.”
Extending 17R/35L is just the latest in a series of upgrades at Valley International.
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. Some spots are no-go areas for taxiing planes, but replacing these areas to a depth of three feet 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 and a new HVAC system and new LED lighting, which have combined to cut utility costs by 30 percent.
The airport is currently under way with a $1.2 million project to rip out the original 1980s ceramic tile in the terminal building and replace it with blue and gray epoxy terrazzo.
“The terminal floor project is ongoing and we’re looking at the first week of January for completion, which is really going to make the terminal look like a brand-new building,” Wren said.
Wren said the airport also has received FAA approval to extend the flooring “up to the checkpoint and the main walkway in the concourse and get rid of the carpet that is worn out from all the passenger traffic.” Terrazzo flooring will be put down there, too.
“The floor will outlast the building,” he added.
VIA also plans to replace the flat roof on the terminal building and then work on replacing the dome over the terminal lobby, he said.
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.
Wren stressed that funding for these projects has been provided by the FAA, Airport Improvement Program grants or funds from the facility fee the airport charges each passenger.
“We remain debt-free,” Wren said.
Runway 17R/35L is 8,301 feet (proposed 9,400 feet)
Runway 13/31 is 7,257 feet
Runway 17L/35R is 5,949 feet