HARLINGEN — The first international passenger flight in 25 years landed on time Thursday morning at Valley International Airport, ushering in new options for Valley travelers on Mexico’s Viva Aerobus.

Low-cost Viva Aerobus, Mexico’s third-largest airline, and airport officials last month announced the airline would begin twice-weekly flights to and from Viva Aerobus’ hub in Monterrey.

Passenger demand has been so strong, however, Viva Aerobus subsequently announced it would add two more flights to VIA, making a weekly total of four, even before the first flight arrived on Thursday.

Then on Thursday evening, airport officials announced Viva Aerobus was adding a fifth flight to and from Monterrey, this one on Fridays.

The Airbus A320 which landed Thursday was packed to capacity with 186 passengers. Airport officials believe the addition of Viva Aerobus, as well as the re-establishment of temporarily suspended flights from other airlines like American and United, will soon restore total passenger numbers to their pre-pandemic highs.

But Viva’s arrival would not have been possible without significant upgrades to the airport’s international passenger facility on the north end of the terminal building.

By federal regulations this arrival area must be separate from the domestic passenger area, and includes Customs and inspection facilities as an official Federal Inspection Station, or FIS, facility.

“This facility, when I got here six years ago, was not in the best of shape,” Marv Esterly, director of aviation at VIA, said Thursday. “The roof leaked like a sieve, all of the water came in here, ruined the carpets, ruined the walls.”

Low-cost Viva Aerobus, Mexico’s third-largest airline, lands on time Thursday morning and is welcome at Valley International Airport in Harlingen. The Airbus A320 is packed to capacity with 186 passengers. Courtesy: Manny Rodriguez

Esterly said the plan was to gradually improve the international arrival facility at the same time upgrades were made to the rest of the airport.

“It was in really bad shape but it was done in a way where we piece-mealed it,” Esterly said. “When we did the roof for the terminal building, we included this roof in on it, so it was part of a bigger project which lowered the cost.

“All of the AC system in here that was replaced was replaced in the terminal building, the main terminal building, so that was another AIP (the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program) project with the federal government, and that was a 90-10 (split) so it lowered the cost,” he added.

The airport also had to install security cameras and areas and offices where Customs and Border Protection officers and federal agriculture inspectors could work.

The total cost of renovating the international passenger arrival area was about $2 million, almost all of which came from federal government grants, Esterly said.

“The only way we could have Viva or any international flight was to have this building activated,” Esterly said. “We had the building in place but it wasn’t up and operational to the new standards. Now it is. It’s now, I believe, the biggest FIS facility in the Rio Grande Valley for air travelers.”

The additional Viva Aerobus flights between Monterrey and Harlingen will begin sometime between Tuesday and May 26, VIA officials say. Now that the international passenger facility is in place, and depending on demand, it’s conceivable Viva Aerobus will add even more flights.

“We continue to work with them on not only additional flights to Monterrey but also other destinations,” Esterly said. “We’re really working hard to make sure our connections are good connections, and there were some improvements made with some additional aircraft and I’m told Viva is actually looking at their entire schedule for July and figuring out how we can make sure we can get Rio Grande passengers to Cancun as efficiently, to Guadalajara of course, and other connections throughout Mexico.”