It’s the heart of a budding ecosystem of innovation, air travel, higher education and well-paying jobs.
Add its $1.3 billion-plus economic impact, its freeway and rail access, foreign trade and military-use zones and 1.2 million residents only minutes from its largesse, and you have a unique Arizona package with an enticing appeal.
Yet, Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport appears to be a tough sell on the airlines market.
Two of its three carriers, Frontier and Spirit airlines, recently departed to conduct their Arizona operations exclusively at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Now, Gateway’s sole carrier, Allegiant Air, which has propelled most of the airport’s growth, is expressing reservations about plans to build a new passenger terminal on Gateway’s east side.
After five expansions of the existing Charles L. Williams terminal near the airport’s western border there is no more room for another build-out.
And that’s just fine with Allegiant, for the time being.
“Allegiant is confident that the current terminal facilities at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport will support our operations for many years to come,” Keith Hansen, director of airports for Allegiant, said in an email statement. “While it was a prudent and responsible exercise for the airport leadership to explore long-term facility constraints and options, moving forward with plans for an east-side terminal facility would almost certainly create an environment that could not sustain Allegiant’s ultra-low-cost air service.”
In its six-year partnership with Gateway, Allegiant has lauded the airport’s executives, its governing board and operations staff for keeping costs down to accommodate the airline’s phenomenal growth and a plethora of other expansion needs.
Budget conscious operations such as passenger terminals that meet passenger needs without the shopping center-like retail trappings usually mean savings to airport users, including airlines.
Gateway uses funds from airline fees, parking and fuel sales revenue, and leases to airport businesses to operate the airport.
Funding for airport improvements comes primarily from passenger facility charges, federal grants and revenue from airport operations.
“Allegiant has been, and is, attracted to Gateway because it is a low cost airport, said Jane Morris, Gateway’s executive director. “All of our expansions to date have been extremely well done and have not placed the burden on the airlines to develop new facilities. I expect that to continue.
“Airport administration is complex and capital planning requires a long lead time,” she added. “The Gateway Board and staff will continue to include Allegiant and other key stakeholders in the planning options so that Gateway remains an economically viable airport for the community.”
Before her appointment in March as Gateway’s top executive, Morris supervised research and drafting of the Gateway 2030 plan, which is a concept for the eventual design and construction of the east side passenger terminal and its supporting infrastructure.
The plan estimated long-terminal expansion costs, including a new terminal built in three phases, at $1.46 billion. However, actual costs won’t be determined until architects and engineers begin designing the expansion. Funding sources identified in the 2030 plan included nearly $350 million from the federal Airport Improvement Program and $600 million from the sale of airport bonds.
What impact the loss of two airlines will have on continued planning has not been decided by the airport board, but at least one board member is urging that her colleagues proceed with caution.
The board is the governing body of the Airport Authority that owns and operates the airport and consists of the City of Mesa, City of Phoenix, Town of Gilbert, Town of Queen Creek, Gila River Indian Community and City of Apache Junction.
“I want to move ahead very cautiously until the airport gets another airlines or two, or other business to support it (new terminal)” board member and Phoenix Councilwoman Thelda Williams said. “We ought to continue planning because the airlines industry is so volatile. You never know what they are going to do. But I’m not willing to lay out big dollars at this time for actual construction.”
Mesa Councilman Scott Somers, who represents the city’s sixth district that encompasses Gateway airport, also urged continued planning, and to “scale construction to need.”
Despite the loss of Frontier and Spirit, he said, Allegiant Air has more than doubled the number of destinations from the Mesa airport and added more planes.
“They’re filling all of the existing space at the terminal as soon as we can build it,” he said. “And you have to have space available to have the gate capacity to bring in other airlines. We have to move forward and continue to think strategically and be cost effective and supportive of our growth strategy.”
But while Gateway officials confirmed at the time Spirit left that it had accounted for just 8 percent of the facility’s traffic, the loss of two airlines remains a concern as passengers and airport officials try to make sense of the departures.
“Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport fits Spirit’s strategy by continuing to take customers to and from the big cities they want to go to, at an affordable price,” said Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson in an email. “Phoenix is also more convenient and centrally located for more customers from throughout the Valley area.”
What remains unanswered, however, is why Spirit didn’t launch its Arizona service at Phoenix Sky Harbor instead of coming to Gateway first where its planes had 90-plus percent load factors for flights.
The airline also did not say whether it will increase its ticket and option prices to accommodate the higher user costs of operating at Sky Harbor.
With Allegiant Air’s phenomenal success at Gateway as an ultra-low-cost carrier, the Mesa airport has garnered a reputation as the Phoenix metro area’s least expensive model with far less hassle.
That would seem to be a perfect fit for Spirit. But Spirit, obviously, doesn’t think so.
Many passengers say the airport, which is just off the San Tan Loop 202 freeway, is easily accessible, convenient and easy to navigate.
Passenger surveys also show that scores of the airport’s travelers live in the west Valley and other areas of Arizona.
Morris had barely taken over Gateway’s reins as chief executive when Spirit airlines announced in July that it would leave the airport in October. Frontier had gone public with its departure plans earlier in the year.
Airport and Mesa officials said she attempted to persuade the carrier’s executives to reconsider their decision but the airline declined.
She also is stepping up efforts to recruit other airlines, a process that includes Gateway’s current search for an assistant manager of business development whose duties include marketing to land cargo-transport carriers and more airlines.
That’s going to be a very tough job, said veteran airlines analyst Michael Boyd.
“They are going to recruit whoever wants to comes in here,” he said. “The reality is that Mesa Gateway is always going to be a secondary airport…the argument that the East Valley is growing so fast has nothing to do with it…you’re not millions of miles from Sky Harbor ... the Frontier and Spirit experience shows that.”
Other factors are also at play, particularly the year-round, near-perfect weather for flying in the Valley and the rest of Arizona’s lower desert.
Unlike cities in the wintry, snowbound areas of the nation, it’s a rare occasion when airplanes cannot land and take off at Phoenix Sky Harbor International.
So, long as the Phoenix airport, which is less than 30 miles from Gateway, has open gates it will also be a rare occasion when it needs a reliever.
But Gateway will continue to reap rewards for the East Valley as well as the entire state, and to assess it as strictly an airport is not fair.
It has been a catalyst for progressive change, a lodestone for higher-education campuses, vital applied sciences, next-generation research labs, upper-end housing in well-planned communities and highly-innovative companies such as Able Engineering and Apple.
“Gateway can’t be looked at as the stepchild of Sky Harbor anymore,” said George Bliss, a Mesa-based commercial realtor and community activist, as he stood in the Gateway passenger terminal. “We can’t have people thinking that.”
Art Thomason has spent more than 50 years as a professional journalist, serving publications in Missouri, Illinois and Arizona as a reporter, editor and columnist. Thomason has been covering Mesa and the East Valley since 1995.