McAllen-Miller Airport this year has finally captured the majority market share of Rio Grande Valley air passengers. Double digit growth in the last two years propelled the urban airport to the 50% mark, according to Director of Aviation Elizabeth Suarez. “The trend overall is growth on existing routes. It’s great for passengers,” she said.
Several critical elements have converged to position the airport for strong growth and satisfied, repeat travelers.
First, the $28 million terminal expansion and upgrade is nearly completed. That has transformed formerly cramped passenger facilities into a modern, spacious terminal, ready for its new prominence. The expanded terminal and gate area now covers 55,000 square feet and includes a new gate, new passenger waiting areas, a restaurant, a shop and a bar. The TSA screening area that opened in March has two lanes with the capacity to add a third lane. The improved checked-baggage screening system is now able to inspect up 500 bags per hour. New carpet, paint and furnishings brighten the boarding areas while a mesmerizing vertical water feature, programmed to music, will be officially activated with the terminal’s grand opening in May.
Add to that more flights and bigger aircraft serving the airport and you have the factors which have allowed McAllen-Miller to sell to the regional market. The increase in departures to Dallas has been reflected in advanced bookings for flights through the spring. By June, aircraft seating 140-170 will be flying from McAllen on some routes.
“We’re not a typical market, because of the influx from Mexico. Sixty percent of the passengers on Allegiant’s fights to Las Vegas come from Monterey,” Suarez said. She added that Mexico has seen a surge of ultra-low cost carriers that are beginning to expand into the U.S.
“We have a positive story. The challenge is to stay ahead of the momentum,” Suarez said. The airline industry has always been volatile. The Hispanic demographic is become a target market for air service development, she said. “They talk a lot about ethnic growth and connectivity into those markets. We can continue to capitalize on that.” McAllen offers seasonal service to Los Angeles, and Suarez envisions expanding to year-round service to L.A. and Chicago.
“At the end of the day, it’s still a basic model: where do people want to go.”
Before Suarez became the aviation director in March 2014, she had been the city’s transit manager, putting together the intermodal terminal of Metro McAllen from an airport office. Suarez credited her own journey, in part, to the mentoring she received from Valley business leaders, such as General Derald Lary and Bobby Farris. “It was so special to me. I was so humbled. There are probably so many other stories like mine. The community is looking at developing young folks and having them stay here. They are very giving and encouraging. What has set us apart is the Valley’s business community.”
Suarez is well aware of the challenges of directing an urban airport in the midst of a booming region. “We have the responsibility to protect our designated air space. When something is being built within the airport’s flight path, a FAA form has to be filled out.” For example, the tower crane being used for the construction of the performing arts building required FAA notification and approval. Special lighting was required on the obstructions and pilots needed to be informed. “We’ve always worked with developers,” she said, emphasizing the airport gets in on projects very early to forestall any possible issues concerning their airspace.
To read more of this story by Eileen Mattei, read the April 2015 edition of VBR under the “Current & Past Issues” tab on this website, or pick up a copy on news stands.