Chandler officials expect the city’s airport to generate $88 million a year for the local economy by 2025 — and an additional $17 million just by extending a runway to better accommodate corporate jets.
But opponents of the runway extension expect more noise and greater danger of a plane crash.
“They admit the airport’s grown so fast, but they don’t admit that people live around the airport,” said Andy Quirk, 43, a Chandler resident and airline pilot who lives about four miles from Chandler Municipal Airport.
The decision whether to extend the runway will go to voters on May 15 as part of a $451 million bond package, the largest in Chandler’s history. While Chandler is only seeking $65,000 in bonds for the runway — the remainder of the $2.4 million total cost will come from federal and state grants — city ordinance dictates that a runway extension must include voter-approved bonds.
The runway extension is part of a larger airport expansion that will include increased taxiways and hangar space. There is currently a 10-year waiting list for hangar space at the airport.
And the airport is at the center of the Chandler Airpark, a 9-square-mile office and industrial campus expected to bring nearly 25,000 jobs to south Chandler when completed.
The airport is the fourth busiest in the Valley — 45th nationwide — with about 270,000 landings and takeoffs last year. That number is expected to hit 400,000 by 2025.
City officials and other proponents of extending the runway 850 feet say doing so will increase the runway’s overall safety and make Chandler a more attractive location for companies that rely on corporate jets to do business. The current runway would be extended from 4,850 feet to 5,700.
Many jets flying out of Chandler must do so without a full fuel tank during the hottest summer months. With a longer runway, those planes could gain enough speed to take off even when fully fueled. A Beechjet 400, the most popular jet aircraft at the airport now, could fly about 500 miles farther than it can now with the current runway length, an airport official said.
“They can get to like the Dallas area, maybe St. Louis,” Airport Manager Greg Chenowith said.
And stopping for gas adds about 50 minutes and nearly $1,800 to the cost of the flight, according to the city’s airport master plan.
The jet could fly direct from Chandler to cities such as Chicago, Atlanta or Detroit if it took off with a full tank of fuel, Chenowith said.
Airport neighbors, some of whom successfully defeated a proposed $1 million bond in 2000 for an 1,800-foot runway extension, promise to fight the new proposal and are even talking strategy with a local group formed to oppose drug-tester Covance’s planned facility in the adjacent airpark.
“Politics make strange bedfellows, what can I say,” said Guy Pepoy, 60, a printing-company owner who lives on a 2.5-acre “horse property” just south of the airport.
“Now we’ve got people who are really motivated because of the City Council’s decisions relative to Covance,” Pepoy said. “So you’ve got a lot of people who aren’t too happy with decisions that have been made.”
The alliance revolves around perceptions that Covance has been a heavy proponent of the proposed extension because company executives want to fly in on the company’s corporate jets.
The thing is, Covance doesn’t own corporate jets. Employees travel on commercial flights.
“The airport that we’ve been most concerned with being in close proximity to is Sky Harbor,” Covance spokeswoman Camilla Strongin said. She said she did not know how the company’s clients traveled when visiting Covance facilities.
Chandler’s plans for its airport have little, if any, impact on Covance’s plans to build a large laboratory near Gilbert and Queen Creek roads, she said.
Meanwhile, runway extension opponents said they are getting organized but have not filed paperwork to form a political committee to oppose the bond proposal.
About a half-dozen residents have spoken against the extension during recent City Council meetings.
Their message so far: “The voters have said ‘no’ twice on this issue,” Pepoy said. “How many times do you have to say it before it sinks in.”
Proponents say lengthening the runway will make the airport safer for all aircraft and more economical for jet aircraft since they will be able to take off with full loads of fuel all year long.
“If this runway doesn’t get extended, then my biggest concern is it makes it less user friendly and it makes it less safe for the aircraft that are presently operating out of the airport,” said John Walkup, who is heading a political committee formed by pilots and business owners at the airport to campaign for the runway extension.
The longer runway, essentially, gives pilots more room to maneuver. Pilots have more time to gain speed for takeoff as well as more room to stop during a landing, airport officials said.
But to opponents, the added fuel poses dangers far greater than any safety gains that might come with a longer runway. Specifically, they’re worried about a jet crashing into a shopping center that includes a Wal-Mart and several restaurants, and a movie theater expected to open in the spring — all built within the last two years almost underneath flight paths to the northeast of the airport.
There were nine airplane accidents last year at the airport. Most involved student pilots’ landings during training flights and did not cause serious damage or injuries. A pilot in one crash Dec. 10, however, did suffer serious injuries when his plane went down about half a mile southwest of the airport. Officials are still investigating the cause of that crash.
Opponents of the runway extension said they would prefer the city encourage jet traffic to use another airport and concentrate on developing Chandler into a supreme facility for smaller, non-jet aircraft.
City officials and expansion proponents point out that jets using Chandler airport are fully fueled at least nine months of the year already, and a longer runway won’t be rated for heavier or larger aircraft. But jet traffic will increase in coming years even if the runway isn’t extended, they say.
“That’s happening if nothing changes,” said Richard Mulligan, Chandler’s economic development director.
What: City officials will hold a public meeting Feb. 15 to give an update on development plans at the Chandler Airpark, including plans by drug-testing giant Covance, which is planning a large facility near Gilbert and Queen Creek roads.
Where: The meeting will be 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Student Center Conference Rooms 140-144, 2626 E. Pecos Road.
Who: Staff from the Planning and Development Department and the Economic Development Division will provide the public with an overview of Airpark development and discuss the city’s planning process. Questions regarding development impacts on air quality, traffic, wastewater and hazardous waste disposal will also be addressed at the meeting.
Information: (480) 782-2220.
Chandler Municipal Airport
• Size: 542 acres
• Runways: Two, 4,850 feet and 4,440 feet.
• Annual contribution to Chandler economy: $54 million
• History: Started out as a landing strip for crop dusters in the early 1940s, but was bought by the city in 1948 for $8,000.
• Compares with other East Valley airports: Chandler is the second busiest airport in the East Valley with about 270,000 takeoffs and landings last year. Mesa’s Williams Gateway Airport had 280,000 last year.
• Primary uses: General aviation airport used by private pilots and flight schools.