It wasn’t exactly the Wright brothers, but it was huge for the East Valley.
Memories of a small red Terminal One at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport returned Sunday evening to Wayne Balmer as he watched the first passenger jet take off from Williams Gateway Airport in east Mesa.
The small purple-and-white Mesa terminal bordering Gilbert, Queen Creek and the Gila River Indian Community took its first passengers onto a 130-seat Allegiant Airlines flight that took off for Laughlin, Nev., at 8:45 p.m.
Balmer, director of the Williams Gateway development area, stood back watching history take flight.
"The whole south East Valley is going to benefit," he said.
The Williams Gateway Airport Authority predicts 13,000 jobs and a $965 million impact at the airport by 2020. A $10 million cargo apron is under construction. A second terminal is planned to meet up with the future San Tan Freeway stretch of Loop 202. Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York City are among destinations the authority hopes to add.
Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker made sure to get a ticket for the first flight out, though he said he wasn’t quick enough to get one for his wife.
He watched as East Valley residents climbed onto the medium-sized MD-87 with complimentary certificates and golden pins to remember the experience.
"We’re going to have an airport on our own merits," Hawker said, holding a roll of quarters to play the slot machines.
The flight, due back Tuesday, sold out in two days. The second scheduled flight, on March 31, is already sold out.
The $4 million, 2-year-old, 22,000-square-foot terminal can handle 400 people, or as many as four flights at a time. It features four ticket counters and a U.S. Customs Office to manage international cargo. Harrah’s Laughlin, a casino along the Colorado River, is offering the current flights as part of a vacation package that includes airfare and room accommodations.
Lots owned by the Arizona Department of Transportation offer free terminal parking.
The airport already has created about 3,800 jobs, or the number that existed before the U.S. Air Force Base closed there in 1993, according to the airport authority.
Security inside the terminal is the same as in any other domestic airport, U.S. Transportation Safety Administration spokeswoman Suzanne Luber said. That was evident as two late-arrivers had to take off their shoes and undergo multiple screenings after they set off the metal detector.
The Valley has long looked east to Williams to share the transportation economic boon and take pressure off Sky Harbor, which has changed flight paths to deal with a growing market and reached cargo flight capacity.
"It’s close to where I live," said Esther Fix, who was in line with her husband, Ray, to catch the flight. "It’s just a hop, skip and a jump. I think it’s going to be really nice. And the atmosphere is so much friendlier, and enjoyable."
The night before, Ray Fix said he had to wait half an hour as his wife drove around Sky Harbor to pick him up, trying to find a parking spot in his general area.
Many passengers said they were relieved to see Williams come to life.
"I think it’s marvelous," said Lee Thomas of Chandler as he waved to friends. "I’m glad it’s returning as an airport instead of becoming housing developments all around."