The decision to eliminate an Arizona military hero’s legacy from the Williams Gateway Airport name and replace it with the “P” word was neither an act of heartless disrespect nor of shameless opportunism.
It was simply a matter of necessity.
The discount airline promising to steer soon-to-be-named Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport out of its current financial no-fly zone agreed to turn the southeast Mesa airport into a major destination only if the name was changed to better reflect its geographic location, airport officials say.
“They said if you want us to come in there, changing the name is critical to our marketing plan,” airport spokesman Brian Sexton said about Allegiant Air, which expands its Gateway service from two to 13 U.S. cities Oct. 25. “Every air carrier we were talking with said, ‘You need to change that name.’”
The change, approved by the airport authority’s board members last month, is scheduled to take place Oct. 15, at a budgeted cost of $90,000.
The Williams Gateway name, a reference to Army Air Corps pilot 1st Lt. Charles L. Williams, whose plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 1927, is well known to local residents. The former Air Force base, on which the airport stands, also was named Williams.
But airlines such as Allegiant were nervous that the name would mean nothing to potential customers outside the Valley.
“When they’re doing commercials, it makes it much more legitimate if they can say the name and it reflects the area in a recognizable way,” Sexton said. “The name change was something that was going to have to happen.”
A recent survey of managers at comparable airports across the country confirmed what Gateway officials had been hearing from the airlines.
The survey, conducted by WestGroup Research, found those managers rated “airport name that indicates geographic market” the most important of nine factors contributing to a reliever airport’s success, along with competitive landing fees.
Sexton said with all of the investment in Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport made by Southwest Airlines and US Airways, neither is likely to expand to Gateway.
New business will have to come from competitors looking to break into the Valley market, he said.
With Allegiant planning 26 flights a week through Gateway, the annual passenger count is expected to increase from about 19,000 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007, to 125,000 the following year.
Airport and Allegiant staff have been scrambling to build additional parking spaces and expand terminal services and space in preparation for the anticipated passenger boom.
Gateway’s revenue increased in recent years, but so has its debt to airport authority members Mesa, Gilbert, the Gila River Indian Community, Queen Creek and newest member Phoenix.
Outstanding debt increased from $46.7 million in fiscal year 2004 to $51.5 million in 2005 and $60 million in 2006. Currently its largest revenue streams come from cargo business, fuel sales and commercial space, which Sexton said is 99 percent leased out.
“The one thing that’s going to bring us to the break-even point is accelerated passenger service,” Sexton said.
Phoenix-Mesa Gateway destinations
• Bellingham International Airport; Bellingham, Wash.
• Billings Logan International Airport in Billings, Mont.
• Eastern Iowa Airport; Cedar Rapids, Iowa
• Hector International Airport; Fargo, N.D.
• Fort Wayne International Airport; Fort Wayne, Ind.
• Austin Straubel International Airport; Green Bay, Wis.
• Missoula International Airport; Missoula, Mont.
• Greater Peoria Regional Airport; Peoria, Ill.
• Rapid City Regional Airport; Rapid City, S.D.
• Chicago Rockford International Airport; Rockford, Ill.
• Santa Maria Public Airport; Santa Maria, Calif.
• Sioux Falls Regional Airport; Sioux Falls, S.D.
• Stockton Metropolitan Airport; Stockton, Calif.