Business leader Howard Stewart said the concept for his Fly Tucson First initiative was buzzing around in his head for years before he had the chance to share his idea to bolster Tucson’s economy.
Stewart has been president and CEO of AGM Container Controls for almost 20 years and a dedicated member of the Tucson Metro Chamber board of directors since 2012.
“From my understanding, every successful city here in the United States has a successful airport,” Stewart said. “Tucson has an airport that is trying to be successful, but it could certainly be a lot more successful if our residents by and large supported it; but many don’t.”
Stewart was on the Public Affairs Council at the Tucson Metro Chamber when he first brought his idea to light. In Stewart’s first meeting, Robert Medler, Tucson Chamber vice president of state and federal affairs, asked the new councilmembers for their ideas to boost the region’s economy.
“Nobody had ever asked me that question — what do I think would really help this city?” Stewart said. “The idea was that… we community leaders in particular should sign this pledge that we will fly out of Tucson except under certain circumstances.”
Tucson International Airport (TUS), which originally opened in 1919, was the first municipally-owned airport in the U.S. The nonprofit Tucson Airport Authority (TAA) oversees operations at TUS and Ryan Airfield (RYN), a small general aviation airport about 15 miles west of Tucson.
TUS and RYN contribute $7.4 billion in annual economic impact to Southern Arizona and support 43,062 jobs paying $2.3 billion in wages, according to a 2018 report by Elliot D. Pollack & Company for TAA.
TUS saw more than 3.4 million total passengers arriving and departing in 2017, according to the report. That number was up to 3.6 million in 2018 and is pacing even higher for 2019, said David Hatfield, senior director of air service development and marketing for TAA.
“As the region’s major commercial airport, most people know what a valuable asset Tucson International Airport is when it comes to travel to and from southern Arizona,” said Bonnie Allin, president and CEO of TAA, in a statement. “This study takes it a step further quantifying how tightly interconnected TAA’s airports are as economic engines that benefit us all in many ways.”
Stewart said it is not uncommon for Tucsonans to drive about 220 miles roundtrip and fly out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) instead of TUS.
“The last figure I heard is — we lose about a million passengers a year to Sky Harbor,” he said. “You can imagine, if we had a million extra people per year going through Tucson Airport, that there would be a tremendous economic impact. We’d have a lot more flights… my calculations are about 40 percent more.”
That means increasing the existing 60 flights out of TUS to about 84 flights total, Stewart said.
“Of course, that’s going to require a bigger airport,” he said. “And if nothing else it’s going to require more manpower… more employees, more pilots, more flight attendants, more people servicing the aircraft; and that’s going to create more jobs.”
Currently, TUS does not offer flights to East Coast cities, but that could change, Stewart said. With more flights to and from more places, tourists may be inclined to fly into Tucson more often, he said.
One challenge is that, in order to have more flights, there have to be people interested in taking the trip both ways, he said.
For example, American Airlines offered a direct flight from Tucson to New York City and back, but it did not last; Tucsonans and New Yorkers alike showed limited interest. According to Stewart, Tucsonans do not want to brave East Coast winters, and New Yorkers “don’t particularly” want to visit Arizona during the scorching summer months.
“We have this problem that there’s easily six months a year where we don’t do a very good job of supporting each other’s cities,” Stewart said.
That’s where the Fly Tucson First pledge comes in. Stewart said he wants business leaders in particular to sign the pledge to fly themselves and their employees out of Tucson whenever possible.
“I’d like every resident to sign it, but a lot of times these are the people who are running companies or large organizations,” he said.
Sun Corridor, an economic development organization representing the metropolitan areas of Southern Arizona, is partnering with TUS on the business side of things.
“One of the most important pieces of infrastructure for Southern Arizona is the Tucson airport, and while the flying public depends on access to transportation, so do prospective commercial and industrial entities,” said Laura Shaw, senior vice president at Sun Corridor. “Our efforts in that area include a partnership that expands the airport’s assets, really trying to build up more commercial development and help plan for proper land use around the airport for the next five to 10 years.”
The partnership is currently under a three-year contract in which TUS has outsourced its economic development to Sun Corridor. When a company is looking to establish itself or expand near an airport in Southern Arizona, Sun Corridor plays both promoter and broker, pointing a spotlight at the region’s assets.
“The airport has a lot of unique assets here that are really great for business,” Shaw said. “There are probably about 800 to 1,000 developable acres around the airport that the airport’s looking at, and we’re looking at, to help them figure out how to utilize that acreage, how to make them shovel-ready and really ready for business.”
TUS is surrounded by employers, including Raytheon Missile Systems — one of the state’s largest private-sector employers — as well as Bombardier and Ascent Aviation. There are smaller manufacturers, MROs (maintenance, repair and operations services) and fixed-base operators (FBOs) around the airport. FedEx, HomeGoods, Target and Amazon have large distribution centers near TUS.
“It’s got direct access, sitting right between two major highway systems, I-10 and I-19,” Shaw said. “It’s the only Arizona airport with 24/7 CBP (Customs and Border Protection) air cargo handling, so that’s a big benefit as well. And there’s no real property tax for tenants because of how the airport is structured.”
Additionally, the Port of Tucson, a full-service inland port, rail yard and intermodal facility, is about a 15 minute drive from TUS.
“The more businesses and individuals… [that] can fly out of Tucson, the more flights we’ll get,” Shaw said. “It’s the same thing with us and economic development — the more companies we can attract, the more talent we can attract, and vice-versa. So, the more people that fly out of Tucson and don’t drive up to Phoenix really helps to build up the flights here, which will in turn help us to attract more businesses that know that they can fly in and out easily.”
Stewart said the Fly Tucson First initiative reminded him of something Ben Franklin supposedly said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
“If we don’t do all this collectively — if we don’t all agree to do this — we’re screwing ourselves individually, whether we think we’re helping ourselves or not,” Stewart said.