HARLINGEN — When it comes to airport runways, longer is definitely better.
Valley International Airport officials are waiting for their plan to create the longest runway south of Austin to be green-lighted by the Federal Aviation Administration sometime soon.
The $15.5 million project will extend what is already the Valley’s longest runway from 8,301 feet to 9,400 feet.
“Longer runways are better for everybody in any aircraft and that is for the margin of safety,” said Bryan Wren, assistant director of aviation at VIA. “If they need to cancel a takeoff or abort a takeoff, they have more distance to roll out and slow down and stop. Or if they are coming in and there’s bad weather, more pavement is always a better thing.”
All of the airport’s passenger airlines — Southwest, American, United, Frontier, Sun Country and Delta — have contributed letters of support to the FAA in favor of the runway extension to the south of the airport.
But the major beneficiaries will be the cargo planes flying out of Valley International, primarily FedEx and DHL. Extending Runway 17R/35L will help them in long-term planning.
The issue for the two air cargo carriers is reducing wear-and-tear on their investment in their planes.
FedEx is flying Boeing MD-10s and MD-11s, Boeing 757-200s and Boeing 767-300s. FedEx is being supplied two new 767-300s a month under a contract with Boeing, and one of those new planes this month was assigned to Harlingen.
“By extending the length of the runway, their cargo load found in the BCA (benefit-cost analysis) will increase from 44-percent payload factor to 70-percent payload factor, so almost double, which is what they want,” Wren said. “By us doing that, FedEx and DHL have both given letters of support stating that this helps them planning for the future for their presence in Harlingen.
“FedEx and DHL corporate are only going to allow those aircraft to carry a certain cargo load based off the runways where they’re operating out of,” he added. “They will never push those airplanes to the max because they want those planes to last 30 years, 40 years. The MD-10 that they’re flying now was built in the 1970s, so it’s an older air frame and they baby them. They take very good care of them.”
Benefits outweigh costs
The benefit-cost analysis airport officials presented to the FAA appears to be favorable, Wren said.
“Right now the benefit-cost analysis has come back showing that there is a need and a necessity and operational justification, which are the most important factors,” Wren said. “The benefit-cost ratio actually came back at 2.9 over 1, and that means the benefits are 2.9 times better than the cost. Tripled. You only need a one to pass the FAA smell test, a 1-1 ratio, and we’re almost 3-1.”
The proposal sent to the FAA also includes a required environmental assessment which, since no waterways will be involved in extending the runway, should pass FAA muster.
The airport already owns the land where the runway extension would be sited, although there will be a land purchase required to extend the safety zone at the end of the runway.
“We will have to purchase approximately 25 to 30 acres, minimum, just around the area for the Runway Protection Zone,” Wren said.
“We don’t have a first right to the land, but there’s already a navigation easement on all the property including this runway extension which was planned 20 years ago,” he added. “Being a navigation easement there are very strict building restrictions on what can be done. So basically the land can only be used for agriculture.”
Even then there are restrictions on the crops which can be grown. To minimize the risk of bird strikes on planes taking off and landing, no seed crops can be planted in this zone.
Carrying the freight
Within the past 18 months, the airport has added passenger carriers American Airlines and Frontier Airlines, but the airport’s freight business also has been expanding.
Two years ago, FedEx decided to re-route packages from its Laredo airport operation to Harlingen, bringing the freight via truck from Laredo and also from San Antonio and Corpus Christi, in effect turning Harlingen into a cargo hub. To meet the increased shipping demands, FedEx went from one plane to two based at the airport, and those jets are flying twice daily six days a week.
In March, FedEx will begin renovating its package handling operation at VIA to expand the facility.
The $15.5 million investment for the runway extension will be funded through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program and the airport’s Passenger Facility Charge.
Airport officials hope the investment will help maintain Valley International Airport’s reputation as one of the nation’s fastest-growing cargo airports. In 2016, VIA ranked 82nd in the nation in air cargo. By 2017 it had moved up to No. 78, and in 2018 ranked No. 71.
“I believe with our cargo numbers we ended the last fiscal year around 370 million pounds which would put us in the mid-60s, but we just don’t have the official numbers yet until the FAA comes out with them next month,” Wren said.
“We like to diversify,” he added. “We have a good working relationship at the airport, our employees and administration and the airport board, in working with each and every airline, including cargo. But those are sharp increases.”
Wren said that once the FAA grants approval for the runway extension, he expects it to be operational sometime in late 2022.
1. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport — 12,250 feet
2. El Paso International Airport — 12,020 feet
3. Valley International Airport — 9,400 feet*
4. Corpus Christi International Airport — 7,510 feet
5. Brownsville-SPI International Airport — 7,399 feet
6. McAllen-Miller International Airport — 7,120 feet
* If approved by FAA. Current runway is 8,301 feet