So you may have heard a rumor that our local airport is asking local officials to approve an expansion that would add some new aircraft parking space and extend the main runway by half a mile, or a mile, or whatever hot intelligence is circulating in your personal network. You may imagine that it will mean more flights with bigger planes, more noise and traffic, more drift of our small town toward urbanization. You know the airport is already pretty dang busy, and you wonder why it would need to get bigger and busier. Isn't enough enough?
You may not have thought of increasing heat, or the shortage of pilots.
What’s in the plan
The marquee proposal is extending the main runway by around 2,400 feet, to about 10,000, and the general-aviation runway beside it by about 1,350 feet, to a little over 6,000. The airport will acquire big patches of land to the east, west and north as empty buffer zones to block other kinds of development in the approach areas, particularly for residential purposes.
The project will also add related taxiways and apron space for parking aircraft, including more space for the military services and Forest Service. New facility space for ERAU will include a sheltered aircraft apron.
The construction will likely take place over three or four years.
Several factors are driving the need for investment at the airport. Little old Love Field, now known more widely as Prescott Regional Airport, is the 18th-busiest airport in the nation and the third-busiest in Arizona by total operations, projected to top 330,000 this year. Passenger enplanements in 2021 rose to 23,626 against 5,866 in ‘17. This increasing demand is behind the facility’s goal of six to eight passenger departures daily, against two right now, with hope of adding hub destinations including the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle and Chicago.
What’s not happening
On hearing about this, many jump to the idea of more and bigger planes overhead. The facts, says Operations and Community Relations Director Jason Kadah, are different.
For its two daily passenger flights United Express will be shifting from its current 50-seat CRJ200 to the 76-seat E175, regardless of whether the expansion happens. The FAA limits the size of aircraft here to 100,000 pounds, again with or without the project. ERAU training flights have been increasing, projected up by 17% annual through 2023, but this also will have nothing to do with the longer runways.
“One thing we're trying to emphasize,” says Kadah, the airport’s operations supervisor and public-relations manager, “is that we're not trying to make this into Prescott International.”
It’s mainly about science
“When you're in a hot, high location, planes need more runway to get off the ground, simply because the air is less dense,” says Kadah. This factor is called density altitude, and “every pilot computes that, whether you're in a small one or a big one, before deciding to lift off the ground: this much runway at this elevation and this weight.”
“So there are times that the airlines have to deal with that physical limitation. For example, with the afternoon departure to Los Angeles, which can hold 50 people with their bags, fuel and everything, they have to cap it at about 30 seats if the temperature is too high, simply because the runway’s not long enough to be safe.”
This has become a common problem for United Express. “Since we got into the warm season, say about mid-May, they've been capping it at 25-30 seats, and you know that's not good business.”
It’s not like they can’t fill those seats otherwise. “Covid knocked off numbers quite a bit, but the demand has definitely bounced back and load factors are doing very well out of here. Because it’s cool in the morning, the load factor for the early flight to Denver has been very high, and they’re able to almost fill out that plane.”
Our area also offers untapped demand, in large part because of the sharply limited destinations on offer, making six to eight daily flights feasible in the medium future. “We think that would be really good for the community, it would provide options for other destinations.”
Obviously the expansion will be an expensive undertaking, and local residents are justifiably concerned about paying for it. It turns out that relatively little state and local money will be needed.
“The FAA would give us most of the money. Of the roughly $64 million in projected cost, the FAA covers about 95%,” the rest being required local matching dollars. “Two and a half percent has to come from ADOT, for example, and then two and a half percent comes from the airport sponsor, in this case the City of Prescott.”
The mandate of the FAA’s Essential Air Service program is to help support local commercial service, so the primary beneficiary has to be serving passengers. “The EAS subsidy for Prescott helps make up the difference in revenue to support the service despite low seating.” Benefits to ERAU and the US Forest Service will be secondary to that, with ERAU and the City partnering for the new facilities specific to the university.
Canceled and delayed flights have been in the headlines frequently nationwide, and a major factor there has been a shortage of cockpit labor, with many experienced pilots taking retirement during the pandemic and not enough new pilots coming through the training pipeline.
ERAU is one of the nation’s biggest flight schools, and its fleet of Cessnas buzzing overhead testifies to the size of its training program here. While its student force is growing now, it’s still down substantially from its peak in 1997, so it has plenty of room for more. “It’s pretty cool to think that Prescott is leading the way with the next generation of pilots,” says Kadah.
Following a green light from the public, there’s a lot more to the process than your average shopping center or home development.
“One of the next steps in the runway-extension project is environmental planning,” covering air and water quality, noise and other community impact, and engineering concerns like drainage, to ensure the expansion carries no unexpected long-term negative effects.
So far, “The community has been very supportive of the plan. The things we're trying to do here at the airport will benefit everyone. It'll reduce noise and benefit commercial operations, benefit the Forest Service, there are so many positive benefits.”
Kadah invites residents to contact him personally to discuss any question or concern at 928-777-1158 or email@example.com, and he seems to really enjoy talking about the plan and the airport’s future. “We’re trying to just plan ahead,” he says, promising, “We want to be good neighbors, we want to be transparent.”