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AZ: Gateway Airport Control Tower Plans Finally Taking Off

October 30, 2018
In The News

Oct. 29--Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport is finally free to do something about its short -- and potentially unsafe -- air traffic control tower.

Thanks to the U.S. Senate passing the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, the airport will be allowed to spend around $20 million on a new control tower after years of not being able to build it because of an old, bureaucratic rule.

"All we've been wanting to do is spend our own money," airport spokesman Ryan Smith said. "We're not looking for a handout. We just to be able to spend our own money."

The airport can do that now that Congress has eliminated a $2-million cap on capital improvements to traffic control towers at the nation's smaller airports. The rule was put into place to keep towers affordable since the federal government pays most of the bill.

But Gateway Airport is not like most smaller airports. It's the 35th busiest in the country in operations and attracted 1.4 million passengers last year.

With a Vietnam War-era tower still keeping a watch over nearly 300,000 flights a year, however, airport officials have been itching for a taller, wider tower for years.

Congress had been working on passing a new FAA reauthorization bill since 2013. For the last six years, the government operated under the 2012 agreement.

"(Congress) just kind of kicked the can down the road," Smith said.

That's where Arizona's Congressional delegation stepped up.

U.S. Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema and Congressman Andy Biggs led an effort in the House to remove that cap as part of the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill, which the House passed in April.

U.S. Senators later removed the cap from its bill, thanks to Senators Jeff Flake and the late John McCain, Smith said. It passed the Senate on Oct. 3 by a 93-6 vote.

"We cut through the gridlock and delivered for Arizona families, ensuring Gateway can move forward with a new control tower that will pave the way for future economic development," Sinema said.

Mesa Mayor John Giles celebrated its passage by tweeting, "Gateway Airport is an economic engine for AZ."

Even U.S. Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma told the Washington Post the bill was a "big, major deal."

The main portion of the bill that affects most U.S. travelers is the stipulation that airlines cannot bump a passenger from a plane after they've already been seated.

Of course, that's not the part that excites Gateway Airport officials as much. They say the need for a taller, larger tower is immense and years overdue.

The current 106-foot tall building opened in 1970, when the airport was still a military base.

It was never meant to handle commercial traffic; the airport opened as Williams Air Force Base in World War II to train pilots.

At the time, the north and south ends of the runway each had smaller spotter towers to help guide the military planes.

But when the airport began commercial service in 2007, the tower became a problem for controllers -- who couldn't see the far side of the north runway.

Smith said a commercial tower should be at least 165 feet tall and 550 square feet wide, about double its current width.

Currently, Gateway's air traffic tower has only four work stations for a five-person crew. Plus, supervisors have to unplug one of the controllers' headsets and plug in their own in order to listen to on-air traffic.

Other problems include no fire sprinklers, no elevator to the controllers' floor and leaky walls when it rains.

And because of its short height, the FAA has flagged it as a potential safety hazard.

"Everybody really agreed we should have one," Smith said. "It was just a matter of 'How do we get there? How do we make it to where Gateway can make a tower without fundamentally changing the way they are funded?' At the end of the day, we were victorious, and we got the entire cap removed."

Controllers are overseeing nearly 300,000 flights each year, and that number is rising rapidly. It'll get especially crowded once Sky Harbor International Airport reaches its capacity, which is expected to occur in the middle of the 2020s.


According to an analysis completed by the airport, Gateway handles more traffic than 90 percent of all towered airports.

"This is the type of basic infrastructure that the country really needs, which people aren't aware is failing and outdated," said Apache Junction mayor Jeff Serdy, chairman of the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport Authority.

"We always use bridges as an example when we talk about infrastructure. But when you think of the lives that are on the line with an air traffic control building, this is very important."

The airport is currently served by five airlines, with Allegiant leading the way with 45 destinations, including recent additions Indianapolis and St. Louis. Westjet, Swoop and Flair all fly to Canadian cities, while California Pacific will soon offer nonstop service to Carlsbad, California.

Over the next two months, the airport will also begin nonstop service to St. George, Utah, and two Canadian cities (Edmonton and Winnipeg).

An Arizona State University study earlier this decade found more than 10,000 jobs are created in the region because of the airport. Plus, the study said it brings in about $1.3 billion each year to the local economy.