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Harlingen airport becoming Rio Grande Valley’s air hub

October 5, 2018

HARLINGEN — It’s a “game changer.”

That’s the way Marv Esterly, Valley International Airport’s aviation director, describes American Airlines’ return to the stable of carriers.

“We see ourselves as a regional facility,” Esterly said yesterday. “Now we’re moving into that role.”

On Tuesday, American Airlines announced it will offer three daily flights from Harlingen to Dallas-Fort Worth starting March 3.

“It’s huge,” Esterly said. “Having a connection to Dallas is a critical part of the air service here. We know it will significantly impact the community and the Rio Grande Valley.”

American Airlines, the industry’s largest carrier with headquarters in Dallas, connects much of the world.

“Getting to Dallas-Fort Worth connects with just about anywhere in the United States and the world,” Esterly said.

Now, passengers are flying to Houston to catch a connecting flight to Dallas.

The announcement marks a return for American Airlines.

In 1996, the airline, citing stiff low-cost fare competition, pulled out of the airport, where it was offering three daily nonstop flights to Dallas-Fort Worth.

Then in January 2001, American Airlines returned, offering three daily flights on its American Eagle, a 50-seat jet, to Dallas-Forth Worth.

However, by October 2001 the airliner was pulling its Eagle flights as a result of the economic crisis following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

American Airlines’ return to the airport comes a month after Frontier Airlines announced it will offer nonstop service from Harlingen to Denver and Chicago starting in November.

In just a month, the airport, which has been offering about 400,000 airline seats a year, boosted its number of seats by 25 percent, Esterly said.

Soon, he said, American Airlines will offer 56,000 more seats a year, while Frontier will add 46,000 seats.

“It’s been a few years of work to get to this point,” Esterly said of the airport’s expansion of services.

Adding to VIA

Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines will offer nonstop flights between Harlingen and Dallas during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays before launching nonstop flights between the two cities during Spring Break.

To help draw American and Frontier airlines, the airport offered to waive some fees, Esterly said.

“It’s pretty typical throughout the industry,” he said.

As part of its incentive program, the airport will waive fees including landing charges of about $1 per 1,000 pounds of landing weight, exclusive use space fees in the terminal for office rentals, for example, and gate fees, Esterly said.

Esterly said the airport also offered the two carriers as much as $100,000 in marketing support.

“There are start-up risks we’re trying to help them with,” Esterly said. “There are risks associated with airlines coming into a new market. They have to make sure there’s (demand). They have to build a clientele.”

Trying to build

Meanwhile, the city’s new Air Service Development Program is offering a $1 million incentive package to airlines with nonstop flights to Chicago, Las Vegas, Denver, Dallas and San Antonio.

The introduction of American and Frontier airlines boosts the airport’s number of carriers to six, more than McAllen-Miller International Airport, which boasts four carriers, and Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport, with two carriers.

“We’re unbelievably happy with what we have,” Esterly said. “We’ll continue to look at other markets.”

In both McAllen and Brownsville, American Airlines is a major draw.

Now, Esterly is counting on the carrier’s entry into the Harlingen market to lure customers from the two competing airports.

For the city, expanded air service means business.

“Businesses want to be located near an airport and want great air service,” Esterly said. “The better air service we have the more we can attract business.”

fdelvalle@valleystar.com

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