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Wed, Oct. 23

Airport changes likely with departure of Horizon Air

PRESCOTT - For 1,400 or so general-aviation users of the Prescott Airport, dealing with security could get a little easier soon.

As Horizon Air prepares to leave the Prescott market on Sunday, local officials are mulling whether to maintain the more stringent level of security that was necessary because of the 76-seat airplanes that the airline used.

And from the tone of the Prescott City Council this week, the higher classifications could become a thing of the past - effectively freeing local pilots and other general-aviation users from the current requirement for a special security badge.

In September 2008, Horizon began providing daily flights between Prescott and LAX on its Q400 Bombardier airplanes.

Prior to that, the Prescott Airport had federal authorization that allowed for the 19-seat airplanes that Great Lakes Airlines used for its flights out of Prescott. Because of the size of Horizon's aircraft, the city needed to upgrade its classification with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

With the higher TSA classification came a requirement to develop a program for accounting for the people who had regular access to secure areas at the airport, including general-aviation areas for privately owned aircraft.

Airport Manager Ben Vardiman told the City Council on Tuesday that the reclassification was "a very complex process."

Prior to a December 2008 directive from the TSA, the Prescott Airport had about 100 badges in effect. After the directive went into effect, the airport issued more than 2,000 badges in the first year.

Currently, about 1,500 badges are active at any given time - about 1,400 of which would no longer be necessary if the city were to go back to its earlier classification.

Administering the badges requires about 35 hours of work per week at the airport, Vardiman said. For the local pilots, he estimates that the time required to renew the badges is about 10 minutes each, along with a $20 fee.

Although the City Council made no decision at this week's workshop, members appeared to support rolling back the security level to what it was before Horizon's arrival. The matter likely will be on a future agenda for further discussion.

Mayor Marlin Kuykendall sees the expected changes as an opportunity for the airport.

"With Horizon leaving, it changes the whole complexion of how the airport will function," Kuykendall said on Thursday. "Our needs for the massive security will diminish."

With that change, he said, "It's a good time for us to take a complete new look at the airport."

To that end, Kuykendall said he is gearing up a mayor's working group that would develop a business plan for the airport. The committee would include representation from groups with an interest in the airport, such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, major landholders in the area, and Prescott Airport Users' Association.

While previous master plans have focused on airport components such as runways and taxiways, Kuykendall said the business plan would look toward business prospects in the area, as well as airport terminal needs.

And both Kuykendall and Norwood see a future emphasis on general aviation, which includes the small, privately owned planes that use the airport.

"That security requirement (related to Horizon) has created conditions at the airport that did not give us the opportunity to expand general aviation," Kuykendall said.

Added Norwood: "The economy has changed, and the airline industry has changed."

While Great Lakes still offers flights to Ontario, Calif., and Denver under a federal subsidy program (the Essential Air Service program), Norwood said the opportunity to attract another airline flying large aircraft such as Horizon's likely has diminished.

Even so, he said, Great Lakes' numbers are increasing, and could soon necessitate a slightly larger aircraft.

Vardiman said the airline has been studying the possibility of bringing in 30-seat Brasilia aircraft for its flights out of Prescott. Those airplanes would not trigger the higher level of security, which begins with airplanes of 31 or more seats.

In July - the most recent reporting month - Great Lakes attracted 443 passengers for its Denver and Ontario flights. Vardiman said that is a 12-percent increase over the same month in 2009.

The departure of Horizon will not affect the level of security for commercial passengers that board Great Lakes' flights, Vardiman said. Passengers will continue to use the modular terminal building that the city constructed in preparation for Horizon's arrival.

Likewise, Norwood said, Horizon's departure also will have little impact on the number of TSA and police officers at the airport. The officers still are necessary for Great Lakes' flights, he said.

Horizon announced in June that it would be ending its flights out of Prescott, effective Aug. 22.

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