Grand Canyon airport expansion could increase jet service, but area businesses wary

Jul 31, 2012

The Arizona Department of Transportation  wants to see more business at the Grand Canyon National Park Airport.  

They’re planning a multi-million dollar expansion that includes a new, larger terminal that will be able to handle commercial jets.

And that expansion has some business owners in other parts of Arizona worried that Grand Canyon tourists – and their money – will fly right over the rest of Northern Arizona.

Arizona Public Radio’s Shelley Smithson has the story…

Helicopters take off all day, every day at the Grand Canyon airport.

All those air tours make the Grand Canyon the third busiest airport in the state.

But you wouldn’t know if from its appearance.

The tiny terminal looks more like a 1960s era ski lodge.

And the state Department of Transportation thinks THAT makes Arizona look bad…

“What really concerns us is we receive tens of thousands of foreign visitors that go through that terminal every year.  And what they see is a very outdated, old, less attractive facility."

That’s John Nichols. He oversees airport operations as part of his job at the Department of Transportation.

This is the only airport in Arizona operated by the state, and it’s been running in the red for more than a decade.

Last year it lost more than $400,000.

But Nichols says a new $13 million terminal could attract commercial carriers.

And he says those carriers would bring in at least 57,000 new passengers on large jets.

And that, he hopes, would make the airport economically viable.

The funds would come from the Federal Aviation Administration and the state.

But some business owners outside of the Grand Canyon say the airport expansion would be devastating to the region’s tourist economy. 

“Imagine this: you’re a tourist coming from China and you want to visit the Grand Canyon. You see this opportunity to fly into L.A. and fly straight to the Grand Canyon, visit the Grand Canyon, and then leave. You have no reason to see the rest of Arizona.”

That’s Ash Patel. He owns two hotels in Flagstaff and he’s furious about the state’s plan.

“Remember, without the canyon, a lot of that tourism dollars would not filter into the communities like Williams, Seligman, Ash Fork, Page and others," Patel says. "Because a lot of people drove to the canyon, and then while they were driving Arizona highways, they found out about Wupatki National Monument, Walnut Creek, Sunset Crater, Sedona and Lake Powell, and they decided to visit it.”

But Nichols at ADOT says the effect on the region’s communities will be minimal.

“There are some folks who want to check off their bucket list the Grand Canyon and they may want to fly in directly," he says. "I think for the most part, most people want to see all of Arizona, and they spend a good number of days. So as they go through Flagstaff and different places, they’re still going to stop at hotels.”

But Patel says the only businesses that will benefit from the airport plan are those owned by Stilo Development Group.

That’s the Italian firm that plans to build hotels, resorts and housing in the tiny community of Tusayan, just up the road from the airport.

“You don’t expand an airport that has been losing money to benefit one developer. This is government at its worst," Patel says.  

But Nichols says ADOT was working on the airport plan before the state even knew about the Stilo project.

“The goal that the Department of Transportation had early on is to make this airport economically feasible. Had nothing to do with Stilo,” he says.

Environmentalists also oppose the idea of an expanded airport.

Alicyn Gilin is the coordinator of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon campaign. 

She fears that large jets landing just two miles from the park entrance will degrade the Park’s serenity.

“That is a sound that is incompatible with a national park. People come from all over the world to see the Grand Canyon and they really appreciate the vast expanses that they’re exposed to when they stand on the edge of the canyon. They appreciate hearing the sounds of nature, hearing birds and wind and thunder," she says.

ADOT plans to complete its environmental assessment of the airport plan next year.

They hope to finish construction in three to five years.