Tower grant readying Mesa for major airline

February 23, 2020
In The News

Once considered a dusty, remote military castoff, Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport is moving toward a major breakthrough that enables it to host major commercial airlines – thanks to a $10 million federal grant for a new, long-awaited air traffic control tower.

The new tower promises to unlock the airport’s full potential when it is completed at the end of 2022 – which will cost nearly $30 million, with the Federal Aviation Administration pledging $25 million and the rest coming from state and airport funds.

Replacing a vintage Vietnam War-era tower built in 1970 when the airport was still Williams Air Force Base, the much taller and wider new tower is expected to bolster Mesa’s efforts to land a major carrier.

The FAA’s large commitment to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway amplifies the airport’s credibility while eliminating the old tower – the airport’s most glaring deficiency – according to J. Brian O’Neill, the airport’s CEO and executive director. 

“It will be an impressive monument,’’ viewable from throughout east Mesa, southeast Gilbert and Queen Creek, he said. “I think there will be a favorable reception from the airlines.’’

O’Neill said the tower, when combined with the airport’s three 10,000-foot-long runways, strengthens the airport’s longstanding efforts to attract a “legacy carrier’’ with regular service to a western hub where passengers could make connections to hundreds of destinations.

Although O’Neill stressed that he has no deals in place, he said potential examples might include United Airlines, with service to its Denver hub, or Delta Airlines, with service to its Salt Lake City hub.

“They really want to insure they can operate safely and efficiently,’’ O’Neill said.

The new tower contributes heavily towards that goal, expanding the capacity for a larger number of air traffic controllers to handle more flights.

“I do think the desire and the demand is there,’’ O’Neill said, citing the East Valley’s population and job growth. “We do hear on a very frequent basis, if you had daily service to a hub, we’d rather use your airport.’’

He said the East Valley is heading to a point where it will become a separate market and that the metro area is large enough to support more than one commercial airport.

While O’Neill is reluctant to compare airports, saying they all are different, some obvious examples include Dallas-Ft. Worth, Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

The antiquated tower is 106 feet tall and has tight quarters – only 250 square feet – that can accommodate a maximum four air traffic controllers, who need to climb up a ladder to get to the top. 

The new tower will be 165 feet tall, with 550 square feet of work space for a maximum of eight controllers.

“The old tower was too short and the cab was too small. We have just outgrown it,’’ said Ryan Smith, an airport spokesman. “We are at 100 percent design and ready to go.’’

Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, announced that Arizona’s congressional delegation has secured a $10 million discretionary grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to start construction.

“Phoenix-Mesa Gateway’s air traffic control tower is more than 50 years old and is the busiest contract tower in the country. The new tower is a critical addition to help the airport keep pace with our region’s growth,’’ Stanton said.

“The FAA delivering on this commitment is a win for the East Valley and for the entire Phoenix region,’’ Stanton added.

Stanton, whose district includes west Mesa and Tempe, said he views the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway tower as one of Arizona’s most important infrastructure projects.

“This town is big enough for two great airports. This is a great aviation town,’’ he said. “Sky Harbor and Phoenix-Mesa are not competitors at all.’’

He said he would like to see more passenger service at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway, but that the airports should work together to provide the most efficient service possible to the most locations rather than fighting over a particular carrier.

“There’s not an inch of space between economic development in Phoenix and Mesa,’’ Stanton said.

 U.S Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced $13.7 million in FAA funding for the Mesa tower as part of more than $500 million in grants nationally through the Airport Improvement Program.

“We issue AIP grants to airports for eligible projects. We don’t necessarily have specific goals in mind for each grant,’’ said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman.

Mesa Mayor John Giles said Phoenix- Mesa Gateway is in transition from a general aviation to a commercial airport. 

He said it has similar infrastructure to Sky Harbor International Airport, but the antiquated tower has limited it’s potential.

“It’s less and less touch and goes by pilot schools and more and more commercial airlines,’’ he said. The new tower “takes the lid off what the capacity of the airport would have been.’’

“The new tower will allow the airport to keep pace with growth,’’ Giles said. “For safety and growth, it’s really the right thing to do.’’

Ross Aimer, a retired United Airlines pilot and CEO of Aero Consulting Experts in Los Angeles, said that removing the blind spots created by the old tower might usher in a new era at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway.

Aimer, who has flown a corporate jet into Phoenix-Mesa Gateway in the past, said no new airports have been built in the US for decades and Sky Harbor is getting congested. 

“It’s a very interesting airport because all of the facilities are already there,’’ with the new tower added to the long runways, Aimer said. “All of this gives credence to passenger service at Mesa Gateway.’’

But Aimer said major carriers have launched service to “feeder airports’’ in the past, such as Long Beach, only to pull out even when ticket sales were good.

He said people in the industry have told him, “we found we were stealing from our own business’’ because passengers at Long Beach would have gone to Los Angeles International Airport anyway if necessary.

Katherine Estep, communications director for Airlines for America, a trade organization that represents airlines, said she could not speculate on the business decisions of airlines.

“This is an exciting time for air travel,’’ Airlines for America said in a statement. “Across the country, airport construction is booming. More than $200 billion has been invested in runway, terminal and cargo facility expansions and renovations. 

“And, U.S. airlines transport 2.4 million passengers each and every day and travelers continue to take to the skies in record numbers due in large part to historically low airfares.”

 Built for military purposes long before commercial flight was a consideration, the old tower also was considered a safety issue because it is too short for the controllers to see the far side of the north runway.

Spotting towers used for military planes were demolished when the base closed.

O’Neill said this problem was overcome through radio communication between air traffic controllers and pilots.

“Phoenix- Mesa Gateway Airport is a very unique airport. We are the most active contract air traffic control airport in the country,’’ he said. “The dedicated air traffic controllers have to be some of the best in the business because of the diverse air traffic.’’

O’Neill said the air traffic might include anything from a large airliner to a military jet to small planes used by the flight schools that still fulfill the airport’s original training function. 

Contract towers are mostly at smaller airports and operated by employees of a private company, rather than by the FAA.

 The FAA lists 256 such towers nationally, with six others located in Arizona besides Gateway. 

The new tower was made possible when Congress eliminated a $2 million cap on spending on contract control towers.

A letter sent to Deputy FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell in December by the four Arizona congress members said that in the past five years, operations have increased 85 percent, making Phoenix-Mesa Gateway the 35th busiest airport in the country.

In January, an airport press release said that 1,774,763 passengers used the airport in 2019, a nearly 16 percent increase from the previous year.

“We were very fortunate to receive the discretionary funding from the FAA’’ to start building the tower, O’Neill said. “The FAA truly understands the regional importance of the Phoenix- Mesa Gateway Airport Authority.’’

The authority is a consortium of local governments who took over the airport’s operation after the federal government closed Williams Air Force Base. It includes Phoenix, Mesa, Gilbert, Queen Creek, Apache Junction and the Gila River Indian Community.