Airport officials think longer runway’s in the bag

HARLINGEN — Valley International Airport officials believe their $17.8 million runway extension has reached liftoff.

Director of Aviation Marv Esterly told the airport board Friday: “We did it. We finally reached an agreement with FAA on programming the runway extension.”

The runway extension progress came after Esterly and airport officials met with Federal Aviation Administration staff to plead their case to make the longest airport runway in the Valley significantly longer.

The construction will extend north-south runway 17R/35L by about 1,100 feet to 9,400 feet. Not only will this create an added safety margin for passenger planes, the lengthened runway also will allow air freight companies like FedEx and DHL to load their planes more fully, from the current 44 percent cargo capacity to around 70 percent.

Allowing time for engineering, design and construction, the new runway should be finished by late 2022 or early 2023.

“Of course they were worried about discretionary funding since we had discretionary funding for the ramp project,” Esterly said, referring to ongoing construction to replace World War II-era concrete. “And usually you can’t go back to the pot for three years, but we explained to them, we’re back in the pot since its three years from now. …”

“We’ve got it programmed into the system of airport reporting, the SORS, database, so its sitting in there and that’s a great indication that at this point that the FAA has bought in and is ready to move forward with the runway extension,” he added.

According to documents presented to the board Friday, the FAA would pay for $15.1 million of the runway extension costs and the airport would add $2.7 million from its passenger facility charge funds.

The airport already owns the land on the south end of the runway where the extension is to be sited. But officials will have to purchase additional property in order to ensure the runway protection zone, a safety zone, extends beyond the new runway’s end.

“Is there any issue in acquiring the land, if it’s available for purchase?” asked board member Vicki Moore.

Bryan Wren, assistant director of aviation at VIA, noted all the agricultural fields in question are covered by an aviation easement which limits how they can be used.

“The three parcels that we need to separate are actually owned by the same family and the other parcel, which is a very small parcel, he actually bought that land about 10 years ago and wanted to build a building on it and the FAA and city planning denied the permit because it was in our current runway protection zone,” Wren answered. “He’s been ready and willing to sell that. Of course, it will have to be purchased and it will be fair-market value. Reimbursable by the FAA, by the way.”

The new runway at 9,400 feet will be the longest runway south of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, an old military base, where the longest is 12,250 feet. El Paso International Airport has a 12,020-foot runway.

Corpus Christi International Airport’s longest runway is 7,510 feet, Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport’s is 7,399 feet and McAllen-Miller International Airport’s is 7,120 feet.

Interestingly, during airport officials’ discussion with the FAA, it was the federal agency’s staff which suggested that with the lengthening of the runway, a new Instrument Landing System (ILS) should also be installed at the FAA’s expense on the south end of the runway.

The ILS is an advanced electronic radio navigation aid, which given the generally southeasterly winds in Harlingen, is now installed for use by planes landing north to south. But in winter, the winds often shift, meaning planes land from south to north.

“They want to upgrade it so we have glide slopes or ILS on both runways,” Esterly said. “Not only are we getting the extension, but it looks like we’re getting them to promote to the airport guys that we’re going to need more money … to put in ILS on both ends of the runway.”

The Instrument Landing System is a highly accurate radio signal navigation aid consisting of two antennas which transmit signals to receivers in the aircraft cockpit. The antennas provide a pilot with vertical and horizontal guidance when landing in low visibility, which is often the case due to morning fog at VIA in winter months. ILS is not used by departing aircraft.

Without ILS on the south end of 17R/35L, safety regulations mean a plane must approach at a higher altitude, about 800 feet. With the ILS system in place, a pilot could navigate his or her landing on instruments at an altitude of just 200 feet, a major advantage when trying to land in fog.