An influx of tourists and spring training fans are boosting traffic to record levels at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, which will swell with 150,000 passengers in March.
And the airport will likely break other records this year, as it estimates passenger traffic will jump 32 percent. More than 1.2 million passengers are expected, the first time Gateway will reach the 1 million milestone.
The airport’s growth so far has been the result of a single discount carrier, Allegiant.
But the arrival of Spirit Airlines last month has broadened the potential number of passengers. Spirit inaugurated service to Las Vegas last month and on March 22 will fly to Dallas/Fort Worth.
The growth is testing the airport’s ability to serve fliers.
Gateway is adding a second baggage area because when two flights come in at the same time, passengers have to wait up to a half-hour to get their luggage.
And nearly every other critical part of the airport is under review as administrators look to add another airline, upgrade the air traffic control tower and eventually build a massive new terminal.
The rate of success caught the airport off guard.
Gateway had built a passenger terminal that sat idle while the severely battered airline industry struggled to recover from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But once Allegiant started service in 2007, growth outpaced projections, said Gateway Executive Director Lynn Kusy.
“We have been expecting our passengers to grow, but the amount of growth is a little surprising,” Kusy said.
The terminal’s ideal capacity is 900,000 passengers a year with its six gates. An expansion of two gates will help this fall, and another two gates will open the next year.
The gates will expand annual capacity to about 2 million — which could happen in just a few years.
That could trigger growing pains for Gateway. The airport doesn’t have space for more than 10 gates at the terminal’s existing location. A new terminal to handle 10 million passengers a year is planned on the airport’s east side, but will likely cost several hundred million dollars.
Airport spokesman Greg Sexton acknowledges that until the new terminal is built, the swelling number of passengers could eventually hit a limit and prevent further growth.
“We’re not going to have that issue, at least not this year,” Sexton said. “But if you introduce a third airline, that makes it more complex.”
The airport is in talks with additional airlines. Kusy said he’s hopeful another will establish service this year.
“The Allegiant service and the Spirit service help us make our case,” Kusy said. “It shows our success. It shows the community here is supporting the airlines.”
Gateway also expects the existing airlines will expand to other cities this year.
Gateway has done preliminary studies on a new terminal but not enough to establish a cost. Much of it will be funded through the Federal Aviation Administration. Despite pressures to cut federal spending, the FAA has actually increased funding at Gateway and the airport, Kusy said.
The airport also charges a $4.50 per passenger fee to fund projects like the new terminal.
To meet growth demands, the airport has recently made taxiway improvements and added new fuel tanks. Also, a study is under way on how to expand the air traffic control tower. A larger cab on top of the structure will eventually have to be installed to accommodate a larger staff, and the study will examine if the existing base can support it.
The tower is staffed by a firm that contracts with the FAA. It’s the busiest contract tower in the nation.
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