After more than a decade, Chandler city officials may again be asking voters to extend the runway at Chandler Municipal Airport—a move officials say is necessary to keep the airport competitive with nearby operations, but it is an initiative voters have historically rejected.
As airport usage has continued to trend upward in recent years, the city is working to update its airport master plan, originally approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2010. The updated plan will take into account the increasing economic impact the airport has had on the city as well as the uptick in number of flights in the past two years.
A runway extension is likely to be a major recommendation to come from the master plan update, which is expected to be approved in late 2020 or early 2021, according to airport officials.
“[The runway extension] would allow our airport to compete with the other airports in the county,” said Chris Andres, Chandler Municipal Airport Administrator. “It doesn’t mean that we are going to capture all the other jet traffic, but what it does mean is that Chandler will be able to compete for its fair share of that, which directly translates to more jobs, which translates to the kind of quality of life we have in Chandler; it’s a great place to live and work.”
The airport’s existing runways are 4,401 feet and 4,870 feet, respectively. Andres said that the Chandler Municipal Airport is the only public-use airport in Maricopa County that does not have a runway that is at least 5,000 feet. That 5,000 feet matters, Andres said, because it is an insurance industry standard for companies providing insurance to corporate business aircraft.
“They are generally not comfortable with clients landing at airports with less than 5,000 feet,” Andres said.
A runway extension has been in previous master plans, Andres said. But according to the Chandler city code, voters have to approve the funding for any extensions to the runways at the airports. Voters turned down ballot measures to extend the runway in 2000 and 2007, largely due to concerns of potential noise emanating from the airport due to jets.
Any runway extension, if approved by voters, would take approximately 4 1/2 to seven years, according to city documents, as airports must typically be brought up to current standards before a runway extension is approved. The city’s master plan would determine the needed projects.
History of the Chandler Municipal Airport
Since 1948, the Chandler Municipal Airport has grown from the center of crop-dusting operations to the site of more than 200,000 flights per year.
In the 1970s, the city extended and updated its newly paved runway with lights and purchased the old Rod and Gun clubhouse—a shooting range—for its first terminal, according to historical information from the Chandler Museum.
Then the city implemented a master plan, extended the runway, built new hangars and created a second terminal as the crop-dusting business faded.
In the 1990s, the city built a heliport, a second runway and a more modern terminal building. By 1998, the airport had a permanent air traffic control tower. In 2000, voters opposed the first runway extension and voters again opposed a $2.4 million bond for a runway extension and expansion for the airport’s taxiways and plane storage facilities in May 2007.
The 2007 bond measure involved an extension of runway 4R-22L by 830 feet, taking the runway from 4,870 feet to 5,700 feet. In the master plan approved by the FAA in 2010, projections showed the number of flights in and out of the airport increasing by 2,404 annually, or 6.6 flights per day. In 2016 the city’s airport layout plan was updated to reflect a runway at 5,550 feet, according to city records.
“I see expansion back on the table, I do,” Andres said of the master plan in progress. “Because of projections and forecasts, we are one of six general aviation reliever airports for Sky Harbor. One of our roles is to allow small aircraft to avoid Sky Harbor.”
Andres said concerns about noise from jets were the source of friction in the community when the city requested the previous extensions; he said that is not a problem unique to Chandler, but a problem for many smaller airports in cities.
“Chandler will never be a commercial services airport like Sky Harbor or Phoenix Mesa Gateway,” Andres said. “Historically, people were concerned that 747s were going to land at Chandler if we extended the runway, and that’s just not the case. Little airplanes can land at any airport; big airplanes cannot land at any airport.”
Outside of corporate plane travel, Andres said flight training operations currently make up about 80% of the airport’s usage.
Quantum Helicopters has been at the Chandler Municipal Airport since 1993, company President Neil Jones said. The helicopter flight training school not only trains pilots from the U.S. but also trains pilots from other countries.
Jones, a Chandler native, said he has seen a lot change not only at the airport, but also in the city in the time his business has been located at the airport.
“The activity at the airport has grown at what I think is a rate pretty consistent with the growth of the city,” Jones said.
Quantum Helicopters is one of the stakeholders in the airport and one of several businesses located on the airport’s grounds.
Jones said Quantum Helicopters uses the airport nearly every day, other than holidays and Sundays, for flight operations.
“The heliport out here has been a great place for us to be,” Jones said.
Andres said private jet and recreational pilot use accounts for about 10% of the airport’s usage, and visiting aircraft make up the remaining 10%.
“In terms of business aviation, we are light compared to other airports,” Andres said. “Scottsdale is a good example; they get a lot of business jets. But we have a lot of flight training operations.”
According to a 2016 economic impact presentation to the Chandler Airport Commission, there are about 610 aircraft operations daily at the Chandler airport. An operation is a one-way flight, so a round trip through Chandler Municipal Airport would be considered two operations. Officials said in the presentation that the economic impact of the airport daily was just under $300,000.
“Chandler is a great community, and the airport is a relatively small asset—it doesn’t seem like it would have that big of an impact,” Andres said. “We are looking at about $110 million in economic impact on the conservative side provided by a small airport every year consistently. It’s a gift that continues to give.”
That $110 million is made up of direct employer impacts, direct air visitors, and indirect and induced impacts, according to city documents. The airport’s annual revenue essentially pays for the operating costs of the airport.
The extended runway would accommodate corporate class aircraft, Andres said. At the time of the previous master plan, the study projected that economic impact would increase by 17.5% by extending the runway and allowing for corporate class aircraft. Jet aircraft that are currently operating at Chandler Municipal are often doing so at various degrees of constraints because of the existing runway, according to the 2010 master plan; as a result, weight and fuel restrictions may require flights to further destinations to be forced to stop en route for refueling purposes.
The city has contracted with Coffman Associates Inc. to conduct the master plan study.
The goal of the plan is to develop and maintain a “financially feasible, long term development program, which will satisfy aviation demand of the region; be compatible with community development, other transportation modes, and the environment; and enhance employment and revenue for the local area.”
Terri Kimble, president and CEO of the Chandler Chamber of Commerce, is on the Chandler Municipal Airport master plan committee.
“I’m one of several voices; we have lots of different people from different backgrounds offering input,” Kimble said. “We will always be a smaller airport, and when you look at some of the companies at the airport you really see great stories. It’s kind of what Chandler is all about.”
The city will be hosting public meetings to get input about the airport, and the feedback will be used in crafting the master plan.