HARLINGEN — Valley International Airport finished its fiscal year with a robust rise in enplanements over the previous year, showing a 12.2 percent increase in the number of passengers who boarded flights out of the Harlingen airport.
“The positive takeaway from this is that we were 8.6 percent up over September of last year and ended the fiscal year 12.2 percent up,” Marv Esterly, director of aviation, told the airport board at its last meeting. “I think the negative takeaway from this is we’re suffering still and will suffer through the winter time from the (737 jet) Max issue.
“Southwest needs aircraft (and) they’re pulling them from anywhere they can from throughout the country, so you’ll see less seats in the market for Southwest and that easily contributed to the downturn in their enplanements over last year, as well as United also has Max issues. That’s something we’ve definitely got to continue to watch.”
The Boeing 737 Max issue following two crashes that killed 346 people has led to the planes being pulled from service by multiple airlines. Last month Southwest, the airline most dependent on the Max jet, extended its Max-related suspension until at least Feb. 8.
Although the Boeing 737 Max rarely flies into Valley International, the disruption to airline hub airports has affected Valley International and other airports Southwest serves.
Despite the issues with the 737 Max, Esterly told the board the addition of American Airlines and Frontier Airlines to the Valley International passenger carrier lineup has dramatically shifted the airport’s flight diversity, a result Esterly said was strongly positive for passenger choice and convenience.
Two years ago, market share at VIA was 75 percent for Southwest and 25 percent for United Airlines.
But the end of this fiscal year brought new numbers, showing Southwest still leading the way with 59 percent of the airport’s enplanements, followed by United with 18 percent, American with 12 percent and Frontier with 11 percent.
“It’s all about convenience to the customer,” Esterly said in an interview following the meeting. “With additional carriers it opens up different markets, like Denver, like Chicago. And opening up these different markets gives more convenience to the customer to get to where they want to go. In doing so, you increase your enplanements and that’s what we’ve seen over this last year.”
Esterly said for the past fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the airport had 343,000 enplanements, compared with 306,000 the previous year.
Early this year, Valley International and McAllen International Airport were running about even in total enplanements, the result of strong gains in the Valley market made by the Harlingen airport over the past two to three years.
Over the summer, McAllen surged ahead with a windfall of large numbers of undocumented immigrants flown by federal authorities from the border to locations across the country, although final figures for McAllen and Brownsville are as yet unknown, Esterly said. Still, for the year, McAllen’s enplanements should outnumber Harlingen.
Brownsville’s airport has about 10 percent of the Valley’s flights.
“What we’ve done over the last couple of years has just been amazing and it’s actually got a lot of interest, magazine articles have come out, different publications did stories because they heard of things that are happening here,” Esterly said in the interview.
He likened the greater diversity of airlines offering flights at VIA to a stock portfolio.
“You have diversity so that you’re not relying heavily on one carrier,” he said. “Because you never know. You put all your eggs in a basket as an investment and, boom!, that investment goes south, and you’re really in a bad position.
“Now if anything like that would ever happen, and I don’t expect anything like that happening, and I think we’re going to continue to grow at a rapid pace,” he added. “But if something did happen, the other carriers that are already here will quickly fill the gap in capacity.”