By Terry Stephens
Spokane International Airport (GEG) has become a major aviation hub for Eastern Washington and Western Idaho. Increased airline flights, an expanding aerospace business park and an $82 million capital expansion program in progress have spurred recent growth. By the end of 2008, the capital improvement program is expected to generate a ripple effect in the region, creating 3,246 direct and indirect jobs and infusing $203 million into the area’s economy, according to an airport study.
In the 1960s, the Spokane area was best known for the scores of Strategic Air Command B-52s and KC-135s based at Fairchild Air Force Base and the F-101 interceptors at Geiger Field. Over the past four decades, the presence of those military units has diminished, with many of the aircraft and military units being retired or transferred to other bases.
As the regional aviation scene has been transformed, Spokane International, referred locally as SIA, has emerged as one of the Pacific Northwest’s leading regional airports and the second-largest airfield in the state, after Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA).
Originally, the development of what was to become SIA began with the U.S. Defense Department’s purchase of Sunset Field from Spokane County to build a B-17 and C-47 training facility named Geiger Field in honor of Maj. Harold C. Geiger, a pioneer in U.S. Army aviation and ballooning. In 1946, a portion of the field was turned over to the City of Spokane for a municipal airport, and current airline operations moved there from nearby Felts Field. In 1960, both Geiger Field and the municipal facility were renamed Spokane International Airport, but the GEG designation remained. Jointly owned by the city of Spokane and Spokane County, a seven-member Spokane Airport Board operates the facility.
Ten passenger airlines operate from SIA, including Alaska, America West, Big Sky, Delta, Frontier, Horizon, Northwest, Skywest, Southwest and United/United Express, plus three cargo lines, DHL Express, Federal Express and Menlo Worldwide Forwarding. The most recent airline to offer service from the airport is Big Sky Airlines, which serves 21 cities in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Wyoming and Calgary, Alberta, operating as a program partner with Alaska, Horizon, Northwest and American West airlines.
Last year’s tally of passengers moving in and out of the terminal reached 3.1 million. It was the airport’s second best year ever and marked a 4.5 percent increase over 2004’s passenger traffic, according to Todd Woodard, the airport’s director of marketing, who said the airport board is “very pleased with that performance.” The increase is also well ahead of the national annual gain of only 2.5 percent for passenger traffic growth at airports. Through April of this year, the airport had handled 993,387 passengers, a 3.7 percent increase over the same four-month period in 2005.
The top 10 destinations for airport commercial flights in 2005 included Seattle in first place, with 529,819 arrivals or departures from Spokane International, followed by Portland, Ore. (236,580 passengers); Boise, Idaho (147,940); Phoenix (122,060); Las Vegas (119,590); Los Angeles (105,460); Oakland, Calif. (102,930); Salt Lake City (91,290); Sacramento, Calif. (91,170); and Denver (78,130).
Rich Hadley, president and CEO of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the city is working with the airport and airlines to try to reestablish nonstop flights to San Francisco or San Jose, which ended in the late 1990s when United stopped its Spokane service to the Bay Area.
“Spokane is more on the map than it’s ever been,” Hadley said. “The airport’s current numbers indicate a strong economy, which could be boosted by gaining more traffic from the Bay Area. Also, there’s a lot of interest in us coming out of California. The issue in San Jose is that we have more economic ties there than we had 10 years ago. Also, attracting capital investment is important here and the Bay Area is the right place for (financing) biotech and electronic development. Without nonstop flights to that area, we’re at a disadvantage (in attracting capital).”
In 2005, Southwest Airlines added a second nonstop flight to Las Vegas. Since June of that year, passenger growth on that route has increased by 10 percent.
“We absolutely love the Spokane market,” said Marilee McInnis, a spokesperson for Southwest. “It’s been a great city for us and we’re looking for ways to grow here.”
Frontier Airlines began nonstop service to Denver in May 2005. Since then, passenger traffic for that route has increased by 23 percent, thanks in great part to Qwest Communications International Inc., the dominant local telephone service provider for the Spokane area, being headquartered in Denver.
Last year, the Spokane Airport Board that governs and operates Spokane International Airport, the Airport Business Park at SIA and nearby Felts Field (now a general aviation facility) launched its 20-year development plan. Capital projects begun in 2005 included an $18 million expansion of the passenger terminal and rotunda, along with an enhancement of Concourse C.
“The expansion of the passenger terminal will add eight new retail stores and 10 new food-and-beverage businesses, including pizza vendors, a bookstore, two Starbucks, an apparel store and an outlet for local wines and microbrews,” Woodard said. “This will be a dramatic change that will enhance our level of customer service more than any other program since the building opened in 1965.”
Also, a new $3.5 million facility is to be built for Spokane Airways Inc., a longtime fixed base operator that provides fuel and other services. Near that facility will be a new $1.7 million, 18,000-square-foot hangar for Empire Airlines to work on small air-cargo aircraft, including space for Absolute Aviation Services’ repair center for components used by the airline industry. The new hangar is due to open in May 2007. Other projects starting this year will include additional taxiways along Pilot Drive for corporate and general aviation aircraft ($500,000) and a new U. S. Customs & Border Protection inspection facility ($400,000).
In 2007, the airport’s 9,000-foot-long main taxiway will be resurfaced. This runway connects the main terminal to the main runway; the $7 million project should be completed by 2008. Next year may also see the start on a $2.5 million hangar whose use is still undecided, a $2.5 million apron expansion in front of XN Avionics’ hangar, and a $1 million service station and convenient store.
One of the reasons the airport is planning to develop a core of new aerospace services at the airfield is the success of XN Avionics LLC. The airport built a $1.6 million, 16,000-square-foot hangar to lease to the firm last year to accommodate its rapid growth. Also branded as XN Air, the company’s workforce of eight is expected to grow by another 55 employees over the next three years. The avionics company installs and repairs aircraft communication and cockpit navigation equipment in planes ranging from single-engine Cessnas to Citation business jets, including complete conversions to “glass” cockpits.
“The growth of XN Avionics is a potential catalyst for creating more aviation, technical and manufacturing businesses and jobs at the airport,” said Woodard. “We’re doing well as an airport, but we’re also working with the chamber of commerce and economic development council to develop more of an aerospace cluster of companies engaged in parts, service or aircraft.”
The airport also has a major asset in its Airport Business Park, a 600-acre commercial real estate complex operated by Spokane Airports. The park has a full network of utilities installed, including fiber optics. Located only a mile from Highway 2 and minutes away from Spokane International, the business park’s tenants include a major call center, manufacturing facilities, light industrial firms, warehouse and distribution companies, an extensive banking operation and the new 362,000-square-foot USPS Spokane Mail Processing and Distribution Center.
Felts Field, Spokane’s municipal airport in the 1930s and 1940s and the original site of the Washington Air National Guard, is also a part of the Spokane Airport Board’s responsibility. A general aviation airport with 320 aircraft based there, the airfield has annual flight operations of more than 72,000. Tenants include the Experimental Aircraft Association, Federal Aviation Administration, Flight Standards District Office, FAA Northwest Mountain Region Airports Division, Washington Pilots Association, Washington Airport Management Association and Skyway Café in the terminal building.
Aviation operations at Felts Field through April totaled 18,406, down 11.5 percent compared to the same period in 2005, but air freight handled at the field increased 58.6 percent during that four-month period, up from 15.7 tons in 2005 to 24.9 tons of freight through April 2006.
In 2008, the airport plans a $26 million extension of runway 3/21. In coming years, there are plans to expand its cargo handling facilities and to develop general and corporate aviation facilities in the Southeast sector of the 4,800-acre airport site.
For more information about Spokane International Airport, its Airport Business Park or Felts Field, visit [http://www.spokaneairports.net], call Director of Marketing Todd Woodard, 509-455-6470, or Judy Gifford at the Airport Business Park, 509-455-6415.