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Thu, July 09

Would the state really<br>shut down GC airport?

In 15 short months, the State of Arizona just might be washing its hands of Grand Canyon National Park Airport.

No, there’s not really a ‘for sale’ sign at Grand Canyon National Park Airport, but there is a bill in the legislature for the state to rid itself of the facility. (Photo illustration by Stacey Davenport/GCN)

That’s been one of the scenarios publicized through a legislative effort by the state to get out of the airport business. As the measure specifies, if Tusayan does not acquire the airport by June 30, 2004, then the state walks away.

But according to the bill’s sponsor, the airport would realistically never shut down.

"I kind of doubt if it would ever shut down," Sen. Robert Burns, R-Glendale, said Thursday. "I believe if it came to the point if Tusayan was not able to do anything about it, somebody else would step forward."

The airport has proven to be a self-supporting operation. With the state in a budget crunch, Burns believes giving up the airport would make good fiscal sense, although it doesn’t cost the taxpayers any money. If the airport ceased to operate, there would be no fiscal impact to the state general fund.

Gary Adams, director of the Arizona Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division, estimated it would cost the state about $20 million to close the airport altogether. Burns said he had not heard of that figure mentioned, but there has been talk that the state would have to pay back airport improvements grants to the federal government. Those grants were conditional on the airport remaining open for at least another 20 years. On top of that, there would likely be lawsuits from Grand Canyon airport tenants.

When asked if he believed Senate Bill 1130 had a chance, Burns was confident.

"There has been some debate on the airport bill when it went through committee (appropriations)," he said. "The Tusayan incorporation bill has gone to other committees I don’t sit on. But no, we’re not really having any problems."

A provision in SB 1130 would allow the state to transfer the airport’s operation to a city before that June 30, 2004 date. That’s where Tusayan comes in with SB 1122.

Senate Appropriations passed SB 1130 on an 11-1 vote a few weeks ago. About one-third of the senators balked at some portion of the proposal before the vote.

Three senators said a proposal to close an airport that brings money into the state didn’t make sense. Others had concerns that Tusayan either wouldn’t get the legal changes lawmakers are considering to allow them to become a city and take over the airport, or would choose not to take over management of the airport if the community did incorporate.

Though the transportation department takes no position on the proposal to end state operation of the airport, Arizona Airports Association president Debbie Klein said she doesn’t think the management transfer will happen.

"It would require a lot of work to transition that airport to new management," Klein said. "I don’t think they’re there yet. I think this legislation is premature."

There were also rumors floating around that even if the airport legislation did pass, the governor’s office would veto. But again, those were rumors.

Airport manager Russ Pankey had few comments about the situation, but added that he’s worried that with the state proposing to pull out of the airport, the 275 employees who work there would lose their jobs.

Grand Canyon National Park Airport was originally operated by the federal government before a deed transfer to Arizona in 1967. Over the years, there have been several attempts to privatize, but those efforts all failed. In 1988, a contracted vendor returned the airport to the state in poor condition in an out-of-court settlement.

Then in 1996, the Grand Canyon National Park Airport Commission recommended that an independent airport authority be created for operation and management purposes. ADOT received one bid, which was rejected in 1998.

The Grand Canyon Airport Authority was created in 1999 to own and operate the airport. GCAA had originally been intended to be an independent municipal corporation, which would provide more local control and have the ability to borrow funds for capital needs. However, it was determined that GCAA was a semi-autonomous state entity and ADOT has run the airport since July 18, 2000.

In 2001, a measure was passed to allow the state to lease the airport to a nonprofit corporation. The law exempted the airport from bid requirements, mechanics liens, the personnel system, rulemaking procedures and the procurement code. But ADOT was unable to lease the airport because of unresolved issues with the Sept. 11 tragedy, liability concerns regarding a lawsuit by the airport’s fixed-base operator and questions of whether the lessee can directly be given federal grants.

The airport is funded by monies from the state aviation fund, federal grants and their operating revenue.

The airport serves approximately 822,000 passengers annually, making it the second busiest in the state. The majority of those passengers visit Grand Canyon from Las Vegas.

Burns has complained that many charter flights from Las Vegas come in, look at the Grand Canyon and leave again. Some tourism officials say people should fly into and out of Flagstaff to see the Grand Canyon instead, in hopes that people will spend some of their vacation dollars in Arizona instead of Nevada.

But taking sightseeing groups from Las Vegas on longer trips to Flagstaff, instead of Tusayan, would be inconvenient for tourists, said Mike Covalt, manager of Flagstaff’s Pulliam Airport and former manager at Grand Canyon airport.

"The idea that everyone that flies into the Grand Canyon would fly into Flagstaff is wrong," Covalt said. "It just wouldn’t work out of Flagstaff because of the distance. If the Grand Canyon airport disappeared tomorrow, traffic would pick up in Flagstaff, but it wouldn’t be anything near what the Grand Canyon airport gets."

(Cyndy Cole, a journalism student at the University of Arizona who is covering rural and suburban issues at the state legislature, contributed to this story).

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