Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport Fulfilling Commercial Reliever Role

Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport’s role as a commercial reliever to Phoenix Sly Harbor International Airport is being fulfilled in more ways than one.

When Williams Air Force Base was recommended for closure in 1991, public officials knew it also meant the loss of 3,800 jobs and $300 million in annual economic activity.

But a regional partnership formed in March 1994, has turned the former base into a national success story. "We opened the Airport in March 1994 and every time a plane landed, the staff would run outside to see what was going on," said Lynn Kusy, Executive Director. "We had no tenants, no customers, and very little activity."

By the end of 1996, they had virtually all the former Air Force buildings leased and had some pretty significant traffic. "Still", said Kusy, "we never expected to grow quite  as fast as we have."

Today, Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport generates more than $534 million in annual economic activity and supports 4,075 jobs in the region. Over 1,250 of those jobs are through more than 30 international aviation employers that operate on airport property, including Boeing, Embraer, Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft.

"The biggest surprise was the use of the Airport for aircraft and aircraft component testing", said Kusy. (Pictured at right)  "Our first customer was a testing set up for B-747 evacuation slides. Since that time we have been the site of testing of the B-777, Boeing Business Jet, MD-11 freighter, and several others." According to Kusy, that was not something they had anticipated in there early business plans. 

In addition to creating jobs, Gateway is among the few airports in the United States expanding passenger service. "The biggest challenge today is keeping up with the growth in commercial passenger service," said Kusy. Allegiant Air started service in October 2007 with two aircraft to eight destinations. Today they operate five 150-seat MD-80 aircraft flying to 20 destinations.

More than 600,000 passengers are expected to come through the newly dedicated Charles L. Williams Passenger Terminal in 2009, and every Allegiant flight delivers an estimated $37,700 into the Valley’s economy.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration announced an $8.9 million grant to expand the Charles L. Williams Passenger Terminal from 35,000 square-feet to 60,000 square-feet. The FAA agreed to the grant because of Gateway’s potential, prompting Mark McClardy, Manager of the FAA’s Western-Pacific Region Airport’s Division to say at a recent press conference, “The potential at Gateway is unlimited and a great investment.”

The funding was made available through the FAA’s Military Airport Program which funds conversion projects associated with former military bases. The funds are not part of the economic stimulus program.

The expanded terminal is just the beginning of anticipated growth for Gateway. In 5 to 10 years, travelers will arrive and depart from a larger facility on the eastern side of the Airport with freeway access. Gateway is forecast to accommodate 10 percent of the Valley’s total airline passenger service by 2020.

The development of passenger service and the creation of jobs is a priority for Gateway officials. But no priority is greater than the commitment to safety. Recipient of the 2008 Airport Safety Award from the Aviation Safety Advisory Group of Arizona, Gateway also recently received a perfect annual safety inspection from the FAA for the twelfth consecutive time. Gateway is among the few U.S. airports to accomplish this.

Another recent accomplishment includes the activation of a new U.S. Visit system at Gateway. The installation and activation of this new system will allow private aircraft carrying no more than 20 passengers and crew the ability to clear Customs at Gateway. Gateway becomes the only alternative in the Greater Phoenix region to Phoenix Sky Harbor for foreign visitors to enter the United States on private aircraft and be processed on-site.

In the midst of an economic recession, Gateway continues to expand and thrive, providing jobs, commercial passenger service options, and enhanced general aviation international service to the State of Arizona – fulfilling its commercial reliever role in more ways than one.