A Flight-Sharing Plan: Phoenix's Two Airports Cooperate

May 8--PHOENIX -- Williams Gateway Airport near Mesa is taking passengers and flights away from Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport.

Phoenix's response?

Invest in Williams, the converted former Air Force base that's likely to emerge as the region's second major passenger airport because it's tucked near much of the region's hottest residential growth.

"There's going to be plenty of passengers for both of us," said Paul Blue, Sky Harbor's director for business and properties.

The greater Phoenix region's population of 3.6 million is expected to jump to 6 million by 2025. That's a break-neck growth rate second only to one major U.S. metropolitan area, Las Vegas.

"The airports here are going to have to work together," Mr. Blue said.

Phoenix's choice reflects a counterpoint to the argument that a region should concentrate its commercial flying at a single facility, as some say North Texas should do at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

A campaign that Southwest Airlines Co. launched in November 2004 to lift Wright amendment restrictions at Dallas Love Field has sparked a major battle in North Texas over the future of the region's airports.

The law limits commercial airliners flying from Love to within Texas and to eight nearby states.

D/FW officials have said if the Wright law is further loosened or repealed, the larger regional airport's economic impact on the area would diminish as it loses passengers to Love.

But D/FW recently proposed a truce. It advocated the creation of a regional authority to oversee North Texas' airports, and a limit on the number of gates at Love, as conditions for lifting the 1979 federal law.

Long-range thinking

According to the thinking in Phoenix, a region should invest in multiple commercial airports under a single authority to accommodate growth for decades to come and the inevitable road traffic that follows.

"You need to take the assets you already have and make them work for you in the long run," said Lynn Kusy, Williams Gateway's executive director.

Sky Harbor is the nation's seventh busiest airport, handling 41.2 million passengers last year. Williams Gateway accommodates only one passenger airline, Vision Airlines, which flies small planes to Las Vegas.

Williams officials are making the case to other airlines that the facility will have 1.5 million people within easy driving distance who will want to fly from there by 2020.

Rather than compete against Williams, Phoenix, which owns and operates Sky Harbor, is taking a stake in it.

Sky Harbor "is the single most important asset we have," Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said at a recent conference here.

But because Phoenix is so far from other major cities by car, the area needs to plan for air service that can expand to match its growth.

In exchange for an investment that will add up to more than $11 million over the next five years, the city is taking a seat on Williams' board of directors.

Williams needs the cash infusion because it's operating at an annual deficit as its cargo business expands.

The two airports had already cooperated on marketing plans and other development at Williams, which has significantly more land available for development than Sky Harbor.

"Our investment is more like an extension of what we've already been doing with them," Mr. Blue said.

Expansions

Fast-growing Sky Harbor has room for a fourth runway and will probably need it sooner rather than later.

Instead of spending hundreds of millions to permit, plan and build the runway, Sky Harbor is content to let Williams Gateway soak up some of the new flying.

The savings from not having to build more infrastructure could save Sky Harbor millions in interest expenses alone, Mr. Blue said.

D/FW has its own expansion issues. Although the airport has plenty of room to build new passenger terminals, it needs a way to get planes from its seven runways to its gates faster during heavy travel times.

Because some runways intersect, planes often take 15 minutes or more to get from the runway to the gate.

D/FW has begun a program to build perimeter taxiways that could make it much quicker for planes to reach gates after landing.

Meeting needs

Some say a regional airport authority won't address the underlying problem with Wright, finding a solution that accommodates both Southwest and American Airlines Inc., which operates its largest hub at D/FW.

Barry Broome, chief executive of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, which aids communities attract new business, said it's government's responsibility to find the best solution for all interests.

"You can't let the politics overcome the need to lead on regional issues," he said.

Southwest officials have said that if the airline can't serve its nationwide network from Love, they may consider moving the company's headquarters from the airport.

Mr. Broome is part of a team that visited Dallas to offer Phoenix as an option if the airline doesn't get relief from Wright restrictions. Southwest already has a large operation at Sky Harbor.

Mr. Broome said he's eager to "treat Southwest a lot better than Dallas is treating them right now."

E-mail etorbenson@dallasnews.com

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