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New St. George airport snagging interest of passengers, businesses

Published January 17, 2012 7:46 am

Economy • City leaders confident that business, other carriers will eventually come around.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

St. George • After a full year in operation, the new St. George Municipal Airport appears to be on course, with more passengers flying into and out of the southwestern Utah city.

The new facility, built from the ground up at a cost of $160 million, also has more hangars and is being credited with generating interest among businesses thinking about relocating. 

SkyWest Airlines, the regional commercial carrier serving the airport to hubs in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, modified its fleet by adding Bombardier jets that could not land at the old airport, which sat on top of a mesa next to downtown St. George. The new airport's longer 9,300-foot runway also allows large corporate jets to fly into the city on a regular basis, according to manager Richard Stehmeier.

In 2010, about 55,754 passengers boarded SkyWest planes to fly out of the old facility, according to Stehmeier. In 2011, some 68,420 passengers flew out and 68,281 flew in aboard commercial flights.

"A total of 136,701 passengers is pretty amazing," he said.

While most residents seem happy with the new airport, complaints have focused on the lack of food services and its less convenient location eight miles southeast of the city. But while airport access isn't as convenient for travelers, resident Jerry Campbell said it's better for pilots.

"We use to call the old [airport] the aircraft carrier because with crosswinds it was difficult," he said of the runway at the old airport. "I like what the airport means for the city. It's good for business to be here and will help stimulate growth."

Stehmeier, hired shortly after the airport opened on Jan. 13, 2011, was lured away from managing the Logan-Cache airport in northern Utah. While revenue figures aren't available yet for 2011, he said the outlook is positive.

"Overall, all our [St. George] numbers have increased," said Stehmeier. "We're on an uphill swing from what we estimated."

He said LifeFlight has built a hangar at the airport and there is a good chance FedEx will open an operation there, followed by UPS.

Revenue streams include lease payments and fees charged to SkyWest, which pays $4.50 per boarding passenger and $1.05 per thousand pounds for every plane that lands. Because it serves more than 10,000 passengers a year, the airport gets $1 million from the federal government to make any improvements needed inside the fence.

It also got a 10 percent cut of the $1.8 million collected by car rental companies in 2011 and earned $150,000 in parking fees, a new revenue stream because parking fees weren't charged at the old airport.

Chris West, manager of Enterprise car rental in St. George, said moving to the new airport allowed the company to triple its fleet to 60 vehicles, including those it handles for two other rental companies. "We're definitely renting more cars and absolutely expect things to get better," he said.

But keeping costs down is critical, said the city's public works director, Larry Bulloch.

"Our challenge is the cost of operating and maintaining a facility that is five times larger than the [old] one, and we have done an outstanding job accomplishing that on our budget," he said.

The old airport's budget in 2010 was $552,000. The new airport's budget for the first year was $752,000.

"It went up by about $200,000. That is approximately equal to the revenue stream we had come in [for 2011]," said Bulloch.

Because the airport is new, Bulloch said maintenance costs for runway surfaces and other wear and tear will remain at a minimum. An education program on energy use has cut electricity costs from $7,000 a month when the new airport opened to $3,500.

"We're really trying to become a lean machine," said Stehmeier.

Mayor Dan McArthur said the city is actively courting other regional carriers to offer service to Denver and possibly Phoenix. He is hoping a business will eventually open to feed hungry passengers, but said the city won't offer the service because it does not want to compete with private enterprise.

Marissa Snow, spokeswoman for SkyWest, which is headquartered in St. George, said the new airport served as a financial booster shot to the airline after a market turndown in 2007-09.

"We are pleased with the past year," said Snow. "There have been more people enjoying our service and our jets have been well-received, which has helped in the recovery."

She said SkyWest offers five round-trip flights a day between St. George and Salt Lake City, with three over the weekend. The airline also offers a daily flight to Los Angeles using its turbo-prop planes.

Scott Hirschi, executive director of the Washington County Economic Development Council, said since the airport opened he's fielded numerous inquiries from businesses about relocating or starting up in the southwestern Utah county.

"I'm the busiest I've been in four years," he said. "The companies I work with are ones that can relocate anywhere. They have a lot of freedom to look at multiple items with some looking at transportation more than others. But the airport is part of the attraction."

SkyWest's ability to offer jets service has been a definite plus.

"I've had clients in the past who wouldn't fly on what they called puddle-jumpers," he said.

mhavnes@sltrib.com

By the numbers

A new airport opened in St. George in January 2010. Some facts:

Cost • $160 million

2011 enplanements • 136,701

2011 budget • $752,000