Hundreds of football fans spent the first and last hours of their Valley vacation in Mesa. Fifteen round-trip charter flights with an average of 150 seats full of Fiesta Bowl and Bowl Championship Series gamegoers arrived and departed from Williams Gateway Airport.
Fifteen round-trip charter flights with an average of 150 seats full of Fiesta Bowl and Bowl Championship Series gamegoers arrived and departed from Williams Gateway Airport, with passengers thumbing noses at long security lines, car- and foot-traffic congestion and two-hour-long journeys from curb to runway at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
That compares with just two charters that Williams landed during the previous year’s Fiesta Bowl, said Brian Sexton, airport spokesman.
It’s the East Valley hub’s new status as a full-service airport that made the difference.
The bowl charters were flown by Allegiant, which provides regular charters for Reno casino customers, and Xtra Airways, which provides the planes and pilots for two of Williams’ scheduled service providers. SkyValue, which started service between Mesa and Gary, Ind., Dec. 15, and Western, which plans to launch service to and from Bellingham, Wash., Jan. 19, lease the Xtra planes, just like Mesa Air flies routes for US Airways and other major carriers.
“When SkyValue’s first flight arrived, the pilot walked into the terminal, shook hands and said, ‘I love your facility. Can I bring Fiesta Bowl charters here?’ ” Sexton said. “He said, ‘This is where we want to go.’ And here they are.”
And the success of the charters is likely to boost the airport’s chances of landing even more scheduled service, he said.
“Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd,” Sexton said. “Coming out of Williams Gateway is like (driving) the HOV lane in rush hour. It’s so easy and convenient. Word of mouth spreads, and it’s all positive.”
In fact, buzz about the convenience of flying to and from the Mesa airport has already been spread by passengers as well as pilots on those early SkyValue flights, leading to lots of new reservations, Sky-Value CEO Darrell Richardson said.
The route is the most popular among the five the company launched simultaneously, and SkyValue recently announced it will commit to year-round service instead of stopping in April, as originally planned.
The carrier also plans to add a third weekly round trip between Gary and Mesa and is working on adding a Southern California leg to all of the flights, Richardson said. He expects to launch service to a Los Angeles-area airport such as Burbank or Ontario as soon as February, he said.
That will be a giant step forward in establishing Williams Gateway’s status as a big Valley hub, said Robert Brinton, executive director of the Mesa Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“The California-Arizona connection is so huge,” Brinton said. ”There is a lot of potential there. I’ve always felt that getting into the California market is essential to establish Williams Gateway’s flight future. Flights three times a week to the L.A. area and back would be very popular. And that will attract other service.”
Brinton said the California leg also will propel Williams Gateway out of the realm of just providing point-to-point flights and establish it as a “connecting airport, with stopovers in a not-crowded (setting).”
That’s something the planners expected would happen eventually but not in the airport’s toddler years.
“It’s interesting how we’re being received, and how fast it’s happening,” Brinton said. “People will be saying, ‘Look who’s landing here now.’ ”