When officials from the Federal Aviation Administration reviewed plans for a passenger terminal at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, they thought something was wrong with the locals.
The terminal was too large for an airport that had yet to attract any airlines, Robert Brinton, president of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau, recalls the officials saying several years ago.
"The FAA told us, ‘You will not fill this, there isn't demand for this,'" Brinton said.
Then Allegiant Airlines opened in 2007. In just three years, the airport has dedicated three expansions to that supposedly oversized terminal - and one more addition will open in two years.
The most recent expansion opens to passengers Wednesday, following a dedication on Tuesday that drew hundreds. The terminal has grown to about 60,000 square feet from 35,000 square feet, which should ease crowding that was most noticeable at cramped ticket counters and the baggage claim.
Also, the airport expanded from four gates to six gates.
The terminal will handle about 800,000 passengers a year from Allegiant. The airline began with service to 13 cities in 2007 and now serves 27 destinations.
Passenger traffic has grown faster than any of the cities Allegiant operates in, chief executive officer Maury Gallagher said.
The airline offers non-stop flights to mostly small cities that require at least one transfer to reach via the major airlines. Allegiant starts with modest service levels when it enters a market, Gallagher said, adding he didn't know what kind of growth to expect.
"We stick our toe in the water and build off of that," he said, later adding, "We're up to our armpits now."
The old portion of the airport was reconfigured for incoming passengers, while the addition houses the baggage claim. Airport executive director Lynn Kusy noted the new area is more spacious than before.
"You could tell people were crowded," Kusy said. "Here, we have plenty of room to stretch."
The expansion will feature a store and two restaurants operated by Paradise Bakery, which will open early next year.
The roughly $9 million expansion was funded by the FAA. The airport has emerged from what had been Williams Air Force Base, which closed in 1993. The airport took longer than expected to secure an airline. However, Mayor Scott Smith said top FAA officials in Washington, D.C., know intimate details of the airport's operation because it's considered a nationwide model for reusing military bases.
"This airport is known nationwide for the success that it's had," Smith said.
The reuse wasn't without controversy. Some airport neighbors fought plans for cargo or passenger service because of airplane noise. Mesa resident Beverly Selvage organized an anti-airport group and drew hundreds of people to meetings, but her efforts failed. Yet she attended the opening ceremonies, saying she enjoyed an Allegiant flight she took in June to Fargo, N.D. She plans trips to Colorado to see grandchildren. She likes the airport's passenger service - though she is sometimes woken up at night from cargo plane noise.
"Otherwise, I'm very glad to see that Mesa's made a go of this," she said.
The Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau travels to every city Allegiant serves to market Arizona travel and boost the economy here, Brinton said. The airline focuses on leisure travelers on a budget, and bureau studies show that's boosted travel to the airport.
"We found that about 30 percent of people say that if it weren't for these flights, they wouldn't have gone," Brinton said.