Serving the Sunshine State

Tucson occupies spectacular desert landscape. (Photo - Scott Kimble)

Tom Allett visited Tucson International Airport, Arizona, which has just received two grants for major reconstruction and energy saving projects.

Tucson occupies spectacular desert landscape. (Photo - Scott Kimble)

Let’s be honest, wherever you are located, almost all regional airports are having a tough time at the moment.  However, because of the cyclic and long-term nature of the commercial aviation industry, no one can afford to stand still for too long.  One such example of a facility pushing ahead in tough economic times is Tucson International Airport (TIA) in the ‘Sunshine State’ of Arizona, deep in southwest USA.
From a visitor’s point of view, Tucson International offers most of the advantages that keep regional airports in business.  The spotlessly-clean terminal building isn’t overcrowded, there are no long queues at the security checkpoints and the car park is right outside the front door.  In short, it is one of those facilities that we all want to use – the ‘hassle factor’ you often encounter at major gateways simply doesn’t exist here.  You can arrive in the car park and be on-board your aircraft – or vice versa – in just a few minutes.
If Tucson has a problem, it is that it has two serious competitors within a 90-minute drive; Phoenix Sky Harbor International, serving the biggest city in the state, and Phoenix-Mesa Airport, the former Williams Air Force Base, which now accommodates a growing low-cost network.  In recent years, the airlines serving Phoenix Sky Harbor have usually been able to offer lower fares than their equivalents from TIA.
 

Tucson International Airport is about to harness the sun’s energy through a huge array of solar panels that will cover the car park outside of the main terminal building. (TAA)

Competition

In 2011, TIA handled 3,658,199 passengers, down 2.2% on the 2010 figure.  Its owner/operator, the Tucson Airport Authority (TAA), responded by introducing its first air service incentive plan, designed to attract flights to new non-stop destinations.  Inducements offered to airlines included marketing support and waived landing fees.  As an indication of just how close the competition is, for the last five years Inside Tucson Business (ITB) magazine has conducted an annual study to determine whether it is cheaper for Tucsonans to fly from Tucson or Phoenix International to the top 12 destinations common to both facilities.  In 2011, for the first time, the study found that it was cheaper, by an average of one dollar, to fly from Tucson.  However, TAA’s President and CEO Bonnie Allin told Airports International that the real advantage for Tucsonans comes from the savings they can make on mileage, fuel and parking costs.  The ITB study found this equated to an average cost saving of US$129.
The 2011 ITB report followed one from The Wall Street Journal, which used US Department of Transportation figures that compared the average fares from the top US airports.  The WSJ found that on average Sky Harbor’s fares were US$24 lower than TIA’s.  It was a pleasing result for all at TIA as it highlighted that the fares gap between the two competitors was narrowing.  Overall, this year passenger figures for Tucson show a slightly downward trend, having got off to a respectable start in the first quarter.  The airport’s management team is cheered by the fact that some of the coming winter’s airline schedules have reinstated services that were cut during the summer.
 
TAA 2013 Budget
On September 18, 2012, the TAA’s board of directors signed-off a US$68.3 million operating and capital budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, which began on October 1, 2012.
Southwest and American Airlines currently dominate Tucson’s commercial traffic. (KEY-Tom Allett)

The figure represents a rise of US$24.8 million in comparison to FY2012, due to an increase in the Capital Improvement Program, which fluctuates each year based on needs and availability of grant funding.  However, in recognition of the continuing “weak economy” and “high fuel costs”, the board reduced operating expenses by almost 2%.  Ms Allin explained that: “In preparing this budget, TAA staff worked exceptionally hard to reduce expenses while ensuring safety, security and customer service are maintained.”  The budget also takes into account the reduced landing fees that have been offered to its airline customers, which are down from US$1.32 to US$1.31 per 1,000lbs (453.5kgs) of landed aircraft weight.  The FY2013 Capital Improvement Program totals $36.5 million, $34.4 million of which is expected to be funded through Federal and State grants.
 
Infrastructure Grants
On September 21, 2012, the TAA received a significant boost when the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded it a US$19.5 million grant to fund the first phase of design and reconstruction of the main terminal apron at TIA.  A further bonus is coming from the Arizona Department of Transportation, which is providing US$957,226 to help offset TAA’s federal grant-matching requirement.  The investment will trigger a substantial works programme with Phase One of a three-year scheme employing 70 workers from the summer of 2013.  When complete, it is expected the project will have cost US$48 million.
The existing concrete apron/ramp paved area surrounding the airport terminal was laid down in 1960 when the first incarnation of the current terminal was built.  It has been withstanding the harsh desert temperatures – well over 100ºF during the summer – ever since, so now it will be replaced with new concrete to a depth of 16 inches (40.6cm).  The construction work will also include a new service vehicle roadway and a new storm drainage system, new airfield lighting, infrastructure for a 400Hz power system, hydrant fuelling system modifications, a fuel loading stand, plus a blast wall and security fencing.  “This reconstruction project will ensure TIA can continue to safely accommodate our community’s passenger airline service needs,” said Ms Allin.
Bonnie Allin is President/CEO of the Tucson Airport Authority (TAA) – a role she has held since 2002. She was named chair of the International Association of Airport Executives (IAAE) board for 2012-2013. This is the fifth consecutive year she has held the office. She holds the Accredited Airport Executive designation from the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), which created IAAE in 1992 to advance airport management education and professional development across the world.

Another boost for all those concerned with the airport and the environment is that car parking is about to become both cooler and greener.  There is a reason why Arizona is called the Sunshine State – on average the sun shines for 360 days per year.  To avoid wasting all that free energy the airport has embarked on a huge solar energy project.  On September 27, the FAA awarded a US$5.7 million grant to the TAA to design and construct the first phase of a huge solar power programme.  When complete, it will provide a 20ft (6.1m)-tall array of solar panels that will form a roof over the main public car park in front of the terminal.  In addition, live plants will be used to create what is described as vegetated green walls that will help produce a cooling microclimate effect within the parking area.  Phase one of three is due to start in the spring of 2013 and will cover approximately five of the 12 acres (4ha) of the main parking areas.  The first phase is designed to generate approximately one megawatt of power annually, which will be fed into the airport’s central utility plant en route to being used within the terminal complex.  When the car park is completely covered, the total annual energy production will be approximately 2.5 megawatts.  The Federal grant is part of an initiative to provide funding for airport projects that promote energy efficiency under the FAA Modernisation and Reform Act of 2012.  The TAA has selected a local company, Barker Morrissey Contracting, to design and build the eco-friendly array.  The Arizona Department of Transportation will also provide funding for this task; some US$280,000 to help offset TAA’s federal grant-matching requirement for Phase One.  This three-phase project is estimated for completion “in two to three years” at a total cost of US$18 million and should employ up to 70 workers during the length of the project.  Ms Allin said the organisation has been “working diligently” to identify potential funding sources to enable the development of a large-scale solar energy photovoltaic module system, consistent with the TAA’s corporate philosophy.  Airports International will cover Tucson’s solar power programme in more detail in a future issue.
 
The author would like to thank Katy Smith, Public Information & Community Relations Manager for her considerable help with this article.