HARLINGEN — Call it a bridge to somewhere.
Valley International Airport is currently installing the sixth passenger boarding bridge at Gate 1, an $800,000 addition which will ease crowding as airlines jostle for a position to load and unload passengers.
Passenger boarding bridges, or jet bridges, are the fixed rectangular tunnels which allow airline passengers and crew to board and disembark from planes once they taxi up to the terminal.
“What this gate does is allows for the growth of the airport, and our enplanement numbers over the last couple of years have seen a double-digit increase,” Bryan Wren, assistant director of aviation at VIA, said.
The addition of a new jet bridge marks a major step forward for Valley International. With last year’s arrival of Frontier Airlines and American Airlines, some days there is heavy demand for an open gate.
“With the addition of the two additional airlines that came last year, we now have a total of six airlines so it makes sense to have six gates because there are times during peak periods in the day where every passenger boarding bridge has a plane on it,” he added. “And we’ve had charter flights like Swift Air or Sun Country flights where they’re actually waiting on the apron for a passenger boarding bridge to free up.”
The accordion-like bridges are surprisingly sophisticated fabrications, with giant screws to raise and lower the airfield end of the passageway to accommodate passenger planes of sometimes vastly different heights.
The new jet bridge at Gate 1 at Valley International will be able to lower far enough for some of the smallest passenger planes, as well as raise high enough to serve taller Boeing 757s.
The Gate 1 jet bridge also can be separated from the rest of the concourse, which means international passengers can disembark and proceed directly to U.S. Customs. The airport now has two jet bridges, at gates 1 and 2, to funnel such passengers directly to Customs although both gates are also used for domestic flights.
“This one is being placed on the northern end of the concourse which has the separation barrier to separate incoming international travelers so they can go down to the FIS (Federal Inspection Services) and process through Customs,” Wren said. “It allows us to expand on potential international flights as well.”
The new jet bridge is practically livable. In addition to loading and unloading passengers, it has an air-conditioning system to ensure passengers are cool going up and down the tunnel, and a second air-conditioner which cools the plane hooked up to the bridge. This cuts airline fuel costs during turnarounds when a plane is on the ground.
“They don’t have to use their diesel-fuel ground generators to power the aircraft,” Wren said.
The new jet bridge was manufactured by John Bean Technologies, known as JBT, of Ogden, Utah. It is one of two companies in the country which fabricate these types of airport passenger facilities.
The massive support pilings under the jet bridges were a major construction project for the airport. Wren said the foundation for these beams is composed of concrete and rebar five feet deep.
The jet bridge is being installed by Vanderlande, a Dutch-based company specializing in these types of airport installations.
Even as the new jet bridge at Gate 1 is being readied for passengers, Valley International officials are ready to move ahead with replacing the bridge on Gate 4 in January at a cost of another $800,000. That jet bridge also will have the latest technology like the dual air-conditioning units.
The new jet bridge on Gate 1 should be ready for passengers for the Thanksgiving holiday, Wren said.