Weslaco’s Mid-Valley Airport has secured the first new landing rights general aviation customs processing center that Customs and Border Protection has opened on the U.S.-Mexico border in 40 years. Because of its proximity to the Progreso International Bridge Port of Entry and the CBP agents stationed there, the airport’s Federal Inspection Services (FIS) processing center now offers “on-call” landing rights to private and charter flights arriving from Mexico.
“We wanted to be able to reach out to customers, our neighbors in the south,” said George Garrett, Mid-Valley Airport’s Director of Aviation. “We felt there was a niche market we could attract, but we had to figure out how to get them to Weslaco. We wanted to capture the corporate traveler in the private plane and develop the facilities at the airport.” The on-call FIS is projected to be a traffic generator for Mid- Valley. “We think we will see greater occupancy in our hotels not only from business travelers but from people coming here to shop. The FIS will help bring businesses and investments to the mid-Valley and additional business to the outlet mall and mid-valley restaurants.”
Mid-Valley Airport has long positioned itself as the Valley’s airport for private aircraft, Garrett said. While Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen airports catered primarily to air cargo and passenger flights, Mid-Valley was carving out and expanding its private aviation niche. Currently 106 planes are hangared or tied down there, more than at any other regional airport.
The Mid-Valley Airport board decided to pursue the on-call option. For the past nine years Weslaco’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) championed their effort to secure foreign customs clearance for general aviation aircraft. Once numerous federal approvals were secured, the CBP-FIS was designed, built and funded by the Economic Development Corporation of Weslaco. The facility was turned over to the City of Weslaco which leases the facility to the CBP. CBP agents stationed at Progreso International Bridge provide the aircraft inspection service on an on-call basis to arriving aircraft which have completed the required overflight notification process. Garrett explained the overflight procedure requires at least two hours’ notice via website or the Progreso Bridge control in order for Customs to send an officer to the airport before the plane lands.
The initial forecasts on the volume of private aircraft using the on-call service have been revamped dramatically as cartel violence escalated in Mexico, Garrett said. “The whole dynamic has changed for people who come from Mexico to the U.S. to conduct commerce. People are flying now instead of driving from Monterrey and Saltillo.” Only two years ago the idea of people chartering airplanes to fly to the border to shop was not given much priority.
The week after the FIS debut, the airport began receiving communications from Mexican charter companies interested in an accessible, low–hassle airport destination, Garrett said. Despite the fact that Weslaco had not marketed itself directly to south of the border aviation prior to the FIS inauguration, the news spread about the FIS.
“Our market is corporate aviation and general aviation. We are in the process of developing a solid marketing plan to reach our target audience not only in Mexico and Latin America but also American and international corporations flying to Latin America. This is a more convenient location for them,” Garrett said. The airport has long-standing access to rental cars, a limo service and other amenities. “We can provide catering for outbound flights. We do that now for American corporate customers.”
Angel Hernandez of Gran Café de la Parroquia in Veracruz anticipated the airport’s FIS service when he opened the American distribution center for the famous coffee and a coffeehouse next to the Weslaco airport earlier this year. He landed his Learjet in Weslaco as part of the late May grand opening ceremony for the on-call service.
With the airport located in an industrial park, Garret said it’s a natural choice for distributors like Hernandez, along with wholesalers and manufacturers seeking a location less than five minutes from the expressway.
Praat Aviation Service, which has been an airport tenant for two years, focuses on training Mexican nationals as pilots. The company, which also runs a Mexico City school, trains students from the novice up to commercial aircraft rating. Weslaco’s draw includes excellent flying weather and less air traffic to contend with combined with less expensive cost of living and plane leasing costs for the trainees in residence.
Currently, the airport can handle up to medium size corporate jets. Mid-Valley Airport is planning to lengthen its runway by 1,000 feet. At 6,000 feet, larger corporate aircraft with international capabilities will be able to land there.