HARLINGEN — More planes means more passengers, and more passengers means more jet bridges.

Valley International Airport officials are readying the bid process to add a seventh passenger boarding bridge — the moveable walkways that link the passenger door of an airplane to the terminal building — and replace two others.

The airport added a sixth jet bridge in 2019. This time around, thanks to unexpected funding included in the federal infrastructure bill passed by Congress a month ago, they have the money now and have moved up plans for the replacements.

“We’re replacing two bridges and adding the lucky no. 7 to our terminal building,” said Bryan Wren, assistant director of aviation at VIA. “We’ll go from six gates to seven gates. But two of the other ones were put in in the ‘90s, the mid to late ‘90s, and they need to be replaced. And we’ll be adding Gate 3, which doesn’t have a bridge at the moment.”

Total cost for the three new jet bridges is $3 million.

“We were only going to replace one bridge this year and do another one next year, but because the funding came through and we’re getting approximately another $3 million on top of our normal entitlements, we decided this year to fund it with the infrastructure bill,” Wren said.

It’s complicated

The cost of the new boarding bridges has gone up, like everything else. In 2019, the airport paid $800,000 for a new jet bridge to be manufactured and installed.

Those are big numbers, but the jet bridges are far more complex than one might think.

The moveable bridges have a steering mechanism, cameras, security features, hydraulics, and a self-contained air-conditioning unit that cools the aircraft once they’re connected.

“But the bridge is also designed that, as the plane unloads and loads, the plane will actually go up and down with its own hydraulics from the struts, and the bridge will follow the plane and stay with it so the plane doesn’t rise and fall without the bridge moving,” Wren said.

The new jet bridges are heavier as well, and concrete foundations need to be shored up to handle the extra weight.

Flights increasing

The previous jet bridge was installed at Gate 1 the same year the airport added Frontier Airlines and re-acquired American Airlines as passenger carriers. And although airport officials have not indicated publicly whether another new airline may be looking at Valley International, the potential is there.

“I can tell you that Southwest is adding an 82 percent increase in seats in the market, actually tomorrow (Thursday) they’re going from four flights a day to seven daily, and in June, they’re going to eight a day,” Wren said.

American Airlines also began upping the size of its aircraft coming to Harlingen last month, replacing 50-seat regional jets with Embraer 175s, which seat 75.

The airport also added additional Frontier Airlines routes to and from Las Vegas and Orlando, and Sun Country Airlines this week announced twice-weekly direct flights to Cancun.

“We’re looking at approximately an 80-85 percent increase in seats in our market,” Wren said. “We’re in need of the seventh gate.”

Valley International handled 323,000 passenger enplanements in its last fiscal year, and this year should surpass the 360,000-passenger mark. The additional Southwest passengers alone may push the airport over 400,000 enplanements this year, Wren said.

“The good thing is our building is designed to handle approximately 1 million passengers a year, so we have enough room to grow,” Wren said. “If all the Valley flew out of Harlingen, this airport’s designed to handle it.”