Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport will never be big enough to be financially successful, will inevitably face noise lawsuits from residents and will be a financial burden on Mesa for decades, according to a local aviation expert.
But airport officials say they are taking steps to plan for the incredible growth headed for the far East Valley and are banking on Gateway complementing Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Arizona State University professor Laurence Gesell, author of 21 books on aviation, former airport manager and designer, and recent inductee into the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame, has raised several questions on the future of the Gateway airport.
"It's a quagmire out there," he said. "It's like Iraq. They made the decision to go in there, and now politically they can't get out."
One of Gesell's main criticisms is that the airport runways run perpendicular to those at Sky Harbor and would create airspace congestion, thus limiting Gateway's potential for high-volume passenger service.
Gesell said that was one of the major reasons the U.S. Air Force closed the former Williams Air Force Base in 1993.
The former base opened as Williams Gateway Airport six months after the base closed and is currently operated by the airport authority, which includes Mesa, Gilbert, Queen Creek, Phoenix and the Gila River Indian Community.
Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport spokesman Brian Sexton agreed that the runways present a challenge, but saidthe Federal Aviation Administration is working with both facilities to balance departures and airspace.
"In a perfect world, if the runways were configured in different directions, it could potentially increase the efficiency of both airports," Sexton said. "But we're confident the runway configurations in the Sky Harbor airspace can coexist through the FAA's efforts."
Gesell said Gateway airport could serve the Valley eventually, but only by default as a spillover for Sky Harbor once that airport has become saturated.
"It has to go somewhere," he said, "but this is terrible master-planning. This is crisis management."
Gesell also predicted that noise levels at the airport will draw lawsuits, and he said Mesa's claim that some people would want to live in a noisy area is a "nonsense argument."
"Airplanes bother people in peculiar ways," he said. "It's a lawsuit waiting to happen and they haven't even developed yet." Sexton said the airport uses a noise model that projects activity out to 2020. Although the study was commissioned in 1999, the airport did know at that time that the GM Proving Grounds would eventually include residential development, as the property's new owner, DMB Associates, has proposed.
The noise contours were used as a baseline for development plans around the airport, the latest of which show residential areas near Gateway, but not its runways.
"If we were using today's contours, it would be out of date," Sexton said. "And we've had pressure from developers to use the contours we have today. But it is going to get significantly busier and louder."
The airport used to receive 100 noise complaints a month about six years ago, but now those are down to two dozen a month, Sexton said, adding that the political climate has changed and more people support the future of the airport.
Sexton credited the actions of Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker for "drawing a line in the sand" and refusing to allow residential development near the airport.
"It made all the difference. Without that vision, there would've been homes there," Sexton said. "And they've battled developers and homeowners."
Gesell said city leaders took on responsibilities at the airport without understanding that the majority of them cost money.
"They are a burden on the city," he said. "This one will cost money for decades."
But Sexton cited the tremendous population growth expected for the East Valley - 1 million new residents east of the airport alone - that would drive the demand for passenger and other airport services.
"That is more than enough population to sustain a commercial service," he said, "and if we don't plan ahead it could go just as he's saying."