Once neglected, Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport has undergone a complete makeover
By Chris Sasser
Texas A&M Transportation Institute
“Night and day!” was Cameron County Commissioner David Garza’s answer when asked how different Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport (KPIL) is now compared to 10 years ago. And with improvements over the past decade that culminated in the airport receiving the 2013 Texas Department of Transportation’s Most Improved Airport award, Commissioner Garza was not exaggerating. The award was presented at the 31st Annual Texas Aviation Conference held in Austin May 13–15.
The airport was originally constructed during World War II as a U.S. Army Air Corps facility. Following the war it served as a Naval Auxiliary Air Station until 1963, when it was deactivated and deeded to Cameron County. Since that time, the airport had undergone a period of neglect and disrepair.
“The airport had been here for many years, but had not developed into an economic engine for the county,” said Commissioner Garza. “When I started my job 13 years ago, I saw this as a raw gem that had some potential. In anticipation of the future growth of this area, we wanted to improve the condition of our airport. To entice economic development opportunities to the airport, we figured it was a lot easier to sell if you have a product that looks good, is sustainable and is a place where people would be proud to come in and land.”
Restoration work on the airport began a decade ago with painting the original 1942 maintenance hangar, restriping the runways and crack sealing the massive tarmac. These improvements were completed with the assistance of TxDOT’s Routine Airport Maintenance Program (RAMP) and local funds.
In subsequent years, the maintenance projects continued with improvements to the runway surfaces, installation of runway lights, wind cone and improved signage.
In 2008, Hurricane Dolly struck the region and did major damage to the airport’s historic hangar. Turning the devastating event into a positive, local leaders replaced the roof of the hangar and installed a new door on the west side of the hangar.
“The new roof system is constructed with an environmentally safe and energy-efficient flex material and was done through insurance reimbursement (from Hurricane Dolly) and local funds,” explained Commissioner Garza during a tour of the facility. “The original existing doors were in dire need of replacement as they were impossible to open and close. With the assistance of the RAMP program and local funds, Cameron County was able to replace them. We utilized the disaster of Hurricane Dolly to make something good for this area.”
In 2009, the airport addressed their lack of hangar space with the completion of eight new T-hangars.
Finally, in 2010, a new 2,520 square-foot terminal was completed. The terminal includes a lobby area, pilot lounge, flight-planning room, public restrooms, conference room and public parking. Future plans include the installation of a self-serve fuel facility system.
A new terminal building, a huge 8001×200 ft. asphalt runway, improved signage and lighting, crack sealed pavement, updates to the historic hangar, new hangars to store planes, a fuel facility around the corner—slowly but surely, community leaders have transformed this once-neglected facility into a modern, popular destination airport.
Other future projects include refinishing the beacon tower, adding to the number of tie-downs and increasing the number of emergency generators.
“Interestingly enough, this is one of the higher elevation places in the county,” said Commissioner Garza. “We use this as a staging area for the community in the event of emergencies, so we want to always be prepared.”
What’s next for the airport located minutes from South Padre Island?
“Once we improve the accessibility to our airport, I think we’ll see a lot of economic development here,” said Director of Operations Marty Peña. “We have plenty of room with our runways and aprons. Space is definitely not an issue here.”
And with a get-things-done leadership team, neither is motivation.