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2:16 AM Mon, Sept. 24th

As airport gears up for AOPA fly-in, officials eye future growth

The Prescott Airport.

Photo by Max Efrein.

The Prescott Airport.

Hundreds of aircraft will descend on Prescott for an Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) fly-in.

Set to take place at Prescott Municipal Airport (Ernest A. Love Field) Friday and Saturday, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, the event promises to have something for everyone with no cost of admission.

AOPA, a nonprofit political organization that advocates for general aviation, has been organizing such fly-ins since 2014. The Prescott fly-in will be the fourth and final one put on by the organization this year.

With a membership of about 500,000 worldwide, AOPA hasn’t had much trouble drawing a crowd to its big events.

“We anticipate about 4,000 people showing up,” Prescott airport manager John Cox said.

Many of the attendees will be arriving in what Cox expects to be about 600-to-700 aircraft.

To make sure everything goes smoothly, the City of Prescott, which owns and operates the airport, has been busy prepping.

“It’s the largest thing we’re working on at the moment in our department,” said Prescott’s Director of Economic Initiatives Jeff Burt.

The event, which will significantly increase the visibility of Prescott’s airport, comes at an interesting time for Ernest A. Love Field and the city’s plans for it.

On Saturday, Sept. 3, a column written by Prescott Mayor Harry Oberg about the city’s ambitions for the airport published in The Daily Courier.

Much of the article had to do with justifying plans to construct a new passenger terminal expected to cost about $6 million and a main runway extension expected to cost about $15 million.

Such improvement concepts have been toyed with for at least the last decade, but nothing came from the discussions until recently.

“For a while, there were a lot of folks that didn’t really want to spend money on the airport,” Oberg said in a phone interview. “They had different priorities.”

About two years ago, that began to change, Oberg said.

Partnerships between public and private organizations began to form, funding through state and federal grants began to look obtainable, and members of city council began to sway in favor of more serious discussions.

The city council has approved matching funds necessary to secure state and federal grants of nearly $8 million for infrastructure improvements and the city secured almost $2 million in grants to prepare an updated Airport Master Plan, conduct an environmental assessment for a new passenger terminal, and design a comprehensive airport security agenda.

While these discussions have been taking place, the airport has continued to struggle in many ways since the peak of the recession.

Federal Aviation Administration records show that the airport had 11,668 passenger boardings (enplanements) in calendar year 2009 and 7,836 in 2010. That figure has since dipped significantly more, settling at 3,420 in 2015, down from 3,862 the year before.

Additionally, Great Lakes Airlines discontinued its Denver flight connection in December, citing a lack of use and a shortage of pilots. The airline now only offers flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport and LAX.

These declines have contributed to the airport’s limited ability to attract other regional airlines to service the area.

“It’s really up to the airlines,” Cox said. “They’re in business to make money, so if they think that they can fly into Prescott and actually sell these seats and make money, then they’ll be interested in coming to Prescott. But that’s a tough sale.”

Oberg believes that the infrastructure and security improvements the city is looking into could drastically improve the situation.

A case to support this belief occurred just last year, he said, when American Eagle came to visit the airport. This is the regional branch of American Airlines with nine individual regional airlines that operate short and medium haul feeder flights.

“They took one look at our terminal and said ‘when you get a new terminal, give us a call,’” Oberg said.

Cox said the city’s commitment to build up the airport is only half the battle. The other half is ensuring that the public will use the airport once it is improved.

“To sell to any airline, we have to be able to say ‘yes, we guarantee you so many seats a day if you want to fly in and out of Prescott,’ and that’s really based on the potential of a survey being done in this region to reach out to the businesses, individuals and leisure travelers just to know what’s the demand here, where is it that people want to go and how can we increase commercial traffic here.”

If the public shows enough interest and such capital improvements move forward, Burt said it will be a long-term effort.

“If everything falls into place with the FAA, funding, etc., then phase one of building the initial terminal might take about three years,” Burt said.

To reach what he refers to as “full buildout,” where the dust settles and all of the details for the terminal are ironed out, the city will be looking at about a 15-to-20 year commitment.

For the time being, Cox understands the capacity of what he has to work with.

“We know that we’re not going to get a Southwest Airlines or even a larger American aircraft from American Airlines,” he said. “What we’re looking for, if this is what the community wants, is a regional aircraft that can fly from here to possibly Las Vegas or Denver. If that’s really what the community wants, they’re going to have to really make that commitment to any airline.”