New Brownsville airport terminal comes online

Opening day

The new boarding area sits empty Tuesday the day before the opening of the new terminal at the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

BROWNSVILLE — The last passenger to fly out of Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport’s old terminal building did so Tuesday, with the city’s sleek new terminal officially opening its doors to the public Wednesday.

Assistant Airport Director Shawn Schroeder said preparations for moving operations into the new $43.8 million terminal began last week. The final move-in phase took place Tuesday throughout the day and night, he said. Terminal security systems were tested. Rental car agencies erected signage and got their equipment set up.

American and United airlines finished up IT work in order to be ready to “process passengers from the curb to the plane” for the day’s first departure at 6 a.m., Schroeder said. TSA’s X-ray machines and other equipment had to be relocated and re-commissioned after Tuesday’s final departure using the old terminal, which was built in the 1970s and is hopelessly outmoded despite a later expansion and retrofitting. The next phase is to demolish the old terminal building, with work to begin in early February, Schroeder said.

Demolition, laying of new pavement and installation of jet bridges is expected to take six months, he said. Shuttle buses will be used to ferry passengers between the new terminal and aircraft until the old terminal is gone and the jet bridges in place, Schroeder said.

“We already have the jet bridges on site,” he said. “Once we get enough pavement on the backside of the new terminal, that’s when we’ll start actually installing the jet bridges.”

Schroeder said the airport hasn’t lost any flights as a result of the pandemic and that passenger activity isn’t bad considering.

“I think we’re actually doing fairly well,” he said. “Our passenger enplanements are doing well. I think we’re tracking above the national average here in Brownsville.”

At any rate, airport officials are looking past the pandemic toward the future in terms of the new terminal’s capacity for generating new flight activity, Schroeder said. With four gates and plenty of room downstairs, the new facility has room to accommodate additional air carriers and will make it possible to market Brownsville to those airlines, he said.

“We’ve got room to grow,” Schroeder said. “We’ve got capacity for additional flights. The design of this terminal was basically a 20-year look-ahead for us to be able to expand if we need it.”

As of today, airport users can buy a plane ticket, check a bag, rent a car and buy a snack from a vending machine, but they can’t order or a salad in the airport restaurant or a beer in the airport bar — not just yet.

“That’s going to come later,” Schroeder said. “We’re still working with various entities on the restaurant/snack bar concession. We did go through a request for proposals for a vending company, so we do have vending machines both on the upper level and the lower level.”

He said it’s very exciting to finally get to opening day, after an effort that was decades in the making just to break ground. Schroeder said the “wow effect” should be substantial for what he billed as a beautiful new aerial gateway for South Texas.

“This is just going to be a tremendous front door for the city,” he said. “It’s going to have a great impact for the whole community. … I think everybody in this region is going to be pretty happy with the terminal. I just think the whole city’s going to be proud of what we’ve accomplished here.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com