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Tue, Nov. 12

New airport manager says change is coming<br>

New Grand Canyon Airport Manager Steve Atha.

Though small in size, Grand Canyon Airport has the distinction of being the third busiest in the state, behind Sky Harbor in Phoenix and Tucson International Airport.

“But it’s not a classical operation,” said Atha. Here, helicopters comprise most of the air traffic, there is little need for usual airport amenities like car rental and dining options and, most significantly, because of its size, Grand Canyon Airport is not subject to the same level of security imposed on larger airports post-Sept. 11.

Ultimately, Atha said, the security issue will play the biggest role in shaping the airport’s future. Essentially, the bigger the operation, the more stringent the regulation.

“When you’ve got 10 or 15 passengers (per aircraft), that’s one thing,” he said. “When you’re talking about 30 passengers, then it gets more stringent.”

There has been talk about adding passenger service to Phoenix and other large airports but that too would require costly upgrades in security, since passengers must begin their trip with the same level of security as is required at major airports.

“We would need a secure area and certified law enforcement person on site,” he said.

The infrastructure would support larger aircraft, especially when the runway paving is completed in the spring.

“We bring jets in here,” Atha said.

“We have 727s and 737s that operate out of the south ramp. But these are charters and essentially they bring in their own security.”

Atha said they are taking a cautious approach.

“Any growth would bring us to a new level in FAA rules,” he said. “It would change the nature of the airport.”

But, he said, even if nothing else changes, facilities are lacking – not just in terms of the future but to handle the current volume of traffic.

A newly-drafted study outlining the condition and needs of Grand Canyon’s terminal building points out those deficiencies.

“They did a study comparing airports. They were all of similar size and all tourist destinations,” Atha said. “At those airports, the terminals are 10 times the square footage that we have here.”

Regardless of what is done, it will require a significant capital investment, he said.

“A new terminal is one thing we can’t say we’ll do or not do,” Atha said. “We need to do something significant. If we stay there we spend money, if we move, we spend money.”

Funding would come from a combination of state and federal money. Currently the airport receives $5 per passenger to be used on security and other upgrades. That money is being spent on a $6.2 million project to repave airport roads and the runway.

Road work is finishing up this month, but the runway work won’t begin until spring when night-time temperatures rise about 40 degrees, the minimum to set the special runway mix properly.

A separate Federal Aviation Administration project is also under way to pave the access road to the air traffic control tower built in 2003,

Both jobs are being done by the same contractor, FNS out of Phoenix. Also moving forward are plans for a $3.5 million fire station and maintenance building. That project is in the design phase and is under bid. While officials hope work can begin next summer, Atha said it’s dependent on availability of federal funding and a state match.

If federal and state money don’t cover the cost of needed safety and infrastructure improvements, as well as security upgrades that would have to accompany growth, Atha said it might be up to the businesses operating at the airport to make up the difference.

“The third source would be the airlines,” Atha said. “We would have to call them together and ask them if they want to stay small or if they want to move into the 21st century. They’ll be the decision-makers.”

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