Incentives drew American, Frontier to Harlingen

Will airlines stay after money runs out?

HARLINGEN — American and Frontier airlines didn’t just fly into town.

Late last year, the city’s new $1.55 million incentive program lured them to Valley International Airport.

It was a big year at the airport. Even without American and Frontier, the number of passengers boarding flights climbed 12.5 percent — to 313,000. That’s up from 277,000 in 2017.

Now, the big question — will American and Frontier stay after the city’s incentive payments dry up later this year.

“We expect them to continue to provide service,” City Manager Dan Serna said yesterday. “We think they will do very well in Harlingen.”

The city’s new Air Service Development Program, which landed American and Frontier, continues through Nov. 30 — or earlier if the money runs out.

At American’s headquarters in Fort Worth, spokeswoman Nichelle Tate said the industry’s largest carrier will remain here after its $834,000 incentive payment is gone.

“We plan to stay,” Tate said. “We want to make sure we’re both in a long-term relationship in Harlingen.”

Beginning March 3, the carrier will offer three daily flights from Harlingen to Dallas-Fort Worth, which connects much of the world.

“We’re giving the services customers need,” Tate said.

However, based on a company statement, it is unclear whether Frontier will remain after its incentive payment runs dry.

“We are happy with our performance in Harlingen and we will continue to fly the new routes that we started in winter into our summer 2019 schedule,” spokeswoman Kelsey Hustead stated.

The response failed to directly answer the question of whether the airliner will remain in Harlingen.

In November, Frontier launched service from Harlingen to Chicago and Denver after taking the city’s $716,000 incentive.

“Frontier has done astonishingly,” Marv Esterly, the airport’s aviation director, said.

Frontier is offering Wednesday and Saturday flights from Harlingen to Chicago and Tuesday, Thursday and Friday flights from Harlingen to Denver.

Esterly said passengers are catching the flights from as far as Corpus Christi and Saltillo, Mexico.

Frontier’s flights are taking off the runway with passenger loads of about 79 percent, Esterly said.

“We’ve had a lot of flights packed,” he said. “You don’t typically see the numbers we’re seeing.”

How we got here

Last September, city commissioners approved a $1.55 million incentive program to expand the airport’s destinations to popular spots.

“We incentivize the airlines because they take a lot of risk in starting a new station. Airports throughout the country have done incentive packages to abate the risk,” Esterly said yesterday. “It’s like any other economic development deal — you bring a company with the intention that it’s going to be successful. We feel really strongly the numbers will support it.”

The Air Service Development Program offered the incentive package to airlines with nonstop flights to Chicago, Las Vegas, Denver, Dallas and San Antonio.

The program led American and Frontier to offer flights from Valley International Airport.

“We do all our homework up front to see if our passengers, our demographics can support say nonstop flights to Chicago and Denver. When we see the numbers we start communicating the idea with the airlines,” Esterly said.