Still Flying: Airport terminal nears completion as airlines suffer

Ramp crewmembers direct a United Express airliner into place for deplaning Thursday afternoon at Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

The airline industry is in dire straits due to the pandemic, though so far it is not translating into a reduction of service at Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport, according to airport Director Bryant Walker.

“In the discussions we’ve had with (the airlines), they have not indicated that they’re cutting anything,” he said.

Brownsville is served by American and United airlines, with service to Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. Walker said that right now he’s “pretty confident” the airport will be able to retain the flights and staffing that goes with them. Meanwhile, passenger activity at the airport has picked up slightly in the last month, he said. In early September, enplanements at Brownsville were down about 60 percent from normal, more or less mirroring the industry overall.

“I would say it’s improved a little bit, very incremental improvements, but I think with the state opening up a little more and other states’ restrictions being lifted, I think that we’ll see it start to really uptick,” Walker said. “So I think that by spring, certainly with the new terminal, we’ll see double digit increases in the amount of traffic we have.”

Officials with DFW International Airport are predicting that passenger traffic will fully recover within 18 months of a vaccine being made available to the public, he said.

“That’s a pretty quick recovery, and given that (DFW) is over half of our own market right now, if their recovery is within 18 months then I would expect that our recovery might be shortly behind that,” Walker said.

He anticipates that passengers will respond to an increase in flight availability, connections and destinations.

“And then of course the confidence in air travel by the general public,” Walker said. “That’s going to have a big impact too.”

Airlines have furloughed 40,000 employees in recent days — 19,000 workers from American and 13,000 from United. All airlines and their employee unions are beseeching Congress and the Trump administration to provide additional federal payroll relief in order to stave off disaster. Walker said relief for the airline industry would be a good thing from the airport’s perspective, considering what could happen if things get even worse.

“It would lead to less connectivity,” he said. “Even though there might be a flight to Dallas, you wouldn’t be able to make your connection from Dallas to London, or Dallas to California. We do want the airlines to be in a healthy position.”

On again, off again negotiations between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have produced no agreement so far. President Trump on Oct. 6 tweeted an order for the negotiations to cease, only to demand a few hours later that the House and Senate strike a deal on $25 billion in airline industry payroll support.

Pelosi briefly entertained a stand-alone relief bill for the industry alone, but back away from the idea and is now insisting on aid to the airlines being part of a general relief package to prop up a wider swath of the economy. Trump has also come back around, at least for now, to supporting a stimulus bill featuring direct payments to Americans.

Walker predicted that the airport’s new terminal building, almost complete, will help generate more passenger activity, noting that the 91,000-square-foot, $43.8 million new terminal will be able to accommodate more air carriers than the current one. The city of Brownsville on Oct. 6 awarded the contract for the final piece of the terminal project, demolition of the old terminal and paving of new aircraft apron, he said.

“We expect that we’ll have a signed contract within 30 days, then a notice to proceed within a couple of weeks of that, so we would be ramping up that project mid- to late November,” Walker said.

It should be about a 120-day project, he said, adding that demolition of the old terminal probably will begin in late December or the first week of January, he said. Once terminal operations are moved into the new building, and until the old terminal is gone and the new paving is complete, passengers will be bused to a ground boarding point where the jets currently park, Walker said.

“We’ll be doing it like airports that have remote terminals where they bus you out,” he said. “We’ll be using an aviation bus to take people from the new terminal to the ground board. And then we’ll demo the terminal. It’ll take us a couple of months to do that and then once we have a clear path and some pavement, then we can install the jetways, which are already on site. Once the jetways are installed then we can start using them. We would expect sometime in January to probably wrap up the total project, everything.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com