Asylum-seekers boost McAllen, Brownsville air passenger numbers

HARLINGEN — Passenger numbers at Valley International Airport continue to increase, but sharp spikes at McAllen-Miller International Airport and Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport are being attributed to higher numbers of asylum-seekers.

The unusual discrepancy was created by a large influx of mostly Central American asylum-seekers crossing from Mexico into the United States, and being flown to various cities across the country where they have family members to await an asylum hearing.

“We’ve had some spikes with Frontier and American and we’re doing unbelievably well,” Marv Esterly, director of aviation at VIA, told the airport’s board last week. “The other two had a huge spike — Brownsville and McAllen — the last few months.

“We’re trying to figure out what this is all about,” Esterly added.

Esterly said in speaking with Transportation Security Administration personnel, it quickly became apparent the large out-bound numbers were directly correlated to apprehensions of migrants and asylum claims.

In May, McAllen’s airport recorded around 38,000 enplanements, or passengers leaving the airport, compared to about 33,000 arriving at the airport. In Brownsville, passenger numbers soared from around 9,000 in February to more than 12,000 the next month.

“Which is huge,” Esterly said of McAllen’s numbers. “But their deplanements were over 5,000 less. So people getting off the aircraft coming in were 5,000 less than were on the aircraft that were leaving and that is a huge disparity.”

VIA recorded 59,616 passengers in June. Of those, 31,920 who were leaving the airport while incoming passengers numbered 27,696. Those numbers combined were an 11.4 percent improvement over June 2018 for the Harlingen airport.

The extra passengers leaving from McAllen and Brownsville were flying regular passenger flights and not special flights.

“This is not ICE flights,” Esterly told the board, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “This is just somebody that’s seeking asylum and comes in and they go through the process, they’re processed, and that way they get a hearing date.

“And that hearing date might be in Chicago or other places where they have family,” he added. “There was a huge release at that point because they were just overwhelmed. So you got all those enplanements all at once. It was very interesting to see. It looks like its tapering off.”

The Harlingen airport has been rapidly narrowing the passenger gap with McAllen’s airport, its numbers receiving a helpful boost by the arrival of new carriers Frontier Airlines and American Airlines.

Just two years ago, McAllen-Miller provided just over half of the Valley’s total passenger numbers, with Valley International in the high 30-percent range and Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport hovering around 10 percent.

Yet for the first two months of this year, inbound and outbound passenger totals showed Harlingen and McAllen in practically a dead heat.

In 2018, Valley International was up 12.4 percent in passenger flights, which far outstripped the smaller increases posted by McAllen (3.39 percent) and Brownsville (3.69 percent) for the year.

In 2018, McAllen-Miller International Airport was ranked the 157th-busiest passenger airport in the nation, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Carrier Activity Information System, known as ACAIS. Harlingen was ranked No. 165 and Brownsville was No. 221.

Yet passengers are only part of an airport’s story.

When it comes to air cargo manifests, Valley International is far and away the number one airport in the Valley. Indeed, the 367 million pounds landed in Harlingen in 2018 ranks it No. 71 in the nation in air cargo landed, and VIA was up 21.78 percent in this category in 2018 over the previous year.

Brownsville-South Padre ranked No. 130 with 7.6 million pounds of cargo landed last year. McAllen did not register among the nation’s top 140 airports when it comes to cargo.