HARLINGEN — Passenger numbers in May at Valley International Airport were down 82 percent year-over-year, but airport officials say they are finally seeing some light at the end of the runway.
The passenger enplanement numbers, reduced by shutdowns, lockdowns and anxiety about travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, were no surprise.
In fact, air travel for May nationwide was off 80 percent, according to federal aviation officials.
“We were, in May, 82 percent down,” Marv Esterly, director of aviation at Valley International, told his airport board last week. “We understand, as bad as that is, that actually is a lot better than it was before in April, when we were 92 percent down.”
“So things are slowly coming back,” he added.
The airlines’ numbers for May were dismal, with Southwest Airlines off 84 percent, United Airlines off 83 percent, American Airlines down 71 percent and Sun Country Airlines down 22 percent compared to May 2019.
The numbers at Valley International are tracking almost exactly with national numbers on passenger enplanements.
“Nationwide, apparently, we’re at 80 percent negative compared to this time last year. We’re pretty much operating at 20 percent capacity right now,” said Eduardo Loya, the Transportation Security Administration assistant federal security director at Valley International Airport.
“At Valley International Airport, enplanements were off about the same, 80 percent,” Loya added. “But they are continually trending up. For example, in April, our enplanements were 2,411; in May 4,728; and June is projected to be close to 8,000.”
The reason for discrepancies in the number of enplanements is that TSA numbers reflect all passengers who go through security, while airline numbers exclude passengers like transiting airline flight crews and some others from their passenger totals.
Digging down into the numbers, Esterly finds some positives in load factors for the airlines, which is the percentage of seats sold compared to a plane’s capacity.
“What’s really interesting to me … it’s really surprising that our load factors are approaching and exceeding 90 percent,” he said, noting available seats in the Harlingen market are down 70 percent.
“Southwest has actually been turning people away at the counter,” Esterly added. “We need more available seats in the market and the airlines are going to slowly bring that back … in the next 60 days.”
Valley International over the past few years has been earning a reputation as an increasingly popular airport for cargo, although numbers this year are off due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Esterly said enplaned cargo, or goods loaded at Valley International for flights out of the Rio Grande Valley, were off 27 percent compared to May 2019.
He said cargo haulers attributed that to fewer goods coming out of manufacturing businesses in northern Mexico, which have been hurt severely by disruptions in their global supply chains.