CARES Act aims $20 million at Valley International Airport

Valley International Airport in Harlingen received perfect safety rating from the Federal Aviation Administration for the third year in row

HARLINGEN — Valley International Airport anticipates a $20 million financial boost from Washington to help it weather travel turbulence and the subsequent financial downturn caused by COVID-19.

In a chart presented to the airport board at its meeting Friday, Director of Aviation Marv Esterly said VIA has about $4 million in cash reserves even without that new federal funding, enough to maintain it operationally for around four months.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law by President Trump on March 27 includes $10 billion in economic relief to eligible airports affected by COVID-19.

“ There’s been a lot of discussion about the methodology in Washington on how they determined the amount of money each airport is getting,” Esterly said. “At this point, the amount we’re looking at is $20 million.”

Esterly said the emergency order to release the funds will arrive Tuesday, and after City Manager Dan Serna, Mayor Chris Boswell and the City Commission sign off on it, the $20 million will be quickly shifted to VIA’s accounts.

“ So it’s really a quick process,” he told the board. “It’s amazingly quick knowing how the FAA has typically operated in the past.”

“ I’m not saying they’re slow by any means, but in a typical year they probably do about 3,000 grants from the ADO (regional) office in Fort Worth for a full year. Now they have to do 3,000 grants by Tuesday of next week. It’s quite the task and I’ve got to commend them for putting together what they did in such a short amount of time,” he said.

The government relief couldn’t come at a more appropriate time as VIA, like the rest of the nation’s airports, reels under the financial losses caused by canceled passenger flights.

“ We’re hopeful everything stays the way it is,” Esterly told the board, referring to the FAA’s disbursement plans. “It will really set us up and help us get through this crisis.”

The number of flights at Valley International has dropped significantly, from a rough average of 15 to 20 arrivals and departures a day to just a handful.

On Sunday, for example, just five flights were scheduled to arrive over the course of the day. One of them, a Southwest Airlines flight from Houston, was canceled, probably because it lacked a minimum number of passengers.

In February, airport officials reported a strong month with passenger enplanements (outbound) up 7.2 percent over the previous year.

No one expects those numbers to track a similar course during the month of March. Those numbers should be out next month.

More than a month ago, VIA embarked on a constant cleaning and sanitizing mission, using roving workers to sanitize heavily touched areas like escalator rails hourly.

Financially, Esterly said the airport has been cleaning house as well.

He said all expenditures had to be approved by him or his deputy, Bryan Wren, and any money spent had to go to operational necessities.

“ All budgets for capital expenditures were frozen,” Esterly told the board. “Overtime now has to be pre-approved. Of course, you can’t fully eliminate it in some cases, but we have significantly reduced it down to nearly zero.”

The airport also suspended all spending on marketing and eliminated travel by staff.

rkelley@valleystar.com