Destination Airports: Tucson, Arizona

 - April 2, 2008, 6:40 AM

Tucson has a strong aviation tradition. It built the nation’s first municipal airport in 1919. During World War II the 16,000-acre, then-municipal airport became Davis-Monthan AFB. After the war, a new civilian airport was established south of the city, the current site of Tucson International Airport.

Today, the three main airports serving Tucson, Ariz., host an eclectic mix of aircraft and missions. Overall aircraft traffic at all three that serve business jets– Tucson International, Ryan and Marana Regional–is on the upswing, but congestion has not grown to the point that the area’s airspace is overly complex.

Tucson International (TUS) is the largest of the three and has the longest runway (10,996 feet). The site has expanded to 8,244 acres over the years and has two additional runways of 9,129 feet and 7,000 feet. On-airport hangars house 240 based aircraft and another 350 are domiciled in shadeports or in tie-down spots. Tucson International is a 24/7 port of entry for U.S. Customs.

TUS is a busy place with diverse operations; the landing pattern can include civilian student helicopter pilots, the F-16 fighters of the 162nd Wing of the Arizona Air National Guard (ANG), wide- body freighters and airliners. While the airspace is straightforward and the tower does a good job of keeping things separated, pilots need to be on their game when flying in and out.

TUS is a magnet for the aviation industry. On airport, nearly 13,000 are employed and another 10,000 work in the immediate area. The Tucson Airport Authority estimates that the economic impact of the airport on the local payroll is almost $1 billion.

Since 1961, numerous airlines– including several foreign flag carriers such as Qantas, Lufthansa, Aer Lingus, BOAC, Ansett-ANA, Trans Australian, Irish International, JAL, KLM, and Swissair– have chosen the site for flight crew training. Other airport tenants include FlightSafety and Hawker Beechcraft. FlightSafety’s learning center offers pilot and service technician courses for the Challenger 600 series and 20/30/40/ 50/60-series Learjets. Aerospace and defense contractors Hughes, Kaman and Lockheed Martin are also located near the airport.

TUS is also notable as the main plant for Learjet production during the 1980s. Bombardier still maintains the 847,000-sq-ft Learjet plant here, but now it is devoted to maintenance and refurbishment. It employs 650 and services almost everything in Bombardier’s product line, including Learjets, Challengers and Globals to regional jets and water bombers. The facility can house 60 airplanes. At Bombardier Tucson you can get everything from a paint job to a new interior to high-speed Internet to enhanced-vision systems installed on your airplane. Bombardier also maintains one of the seven FBOs on the field, but the operation serves mainly as a courtesy to the company’s customers. Bombardier-Tucson services more than 1,000 aircraft per year.

FBO Options at TUS
There is an overabundance of FBOs here. Good news for price shoppers: almost all offer special volume discounts and other incentives, but the irrational FBO competition at TUS is courtesy of the Tucson Airport Authority (the governing body of TUS and smaller Ryan Airfield–RYN–  nearby), which has a unique relationship with its tenants and is seen by some as being overly bureaucratic.

The TAA also runs an FBO that competes with its own tenants. It is located at the base of the control tower and even though the words “executive terminal” are plastered across the awning, the atmosphere and the service can be variable.

But there are lots of other choices here. Atlantic Aviation operates a neat, modern and efficient FBO that attracts 90 percent of the fractional owner company traffic and is managed by people with long track records in the FBO business. Atlantic has ample transient hangar capacity and a huge ramp. The staff is courteous and efficient and serves as a knowledgeable and comprehensive source of local and regional information. 

The Tucson Jet Center, while not as plush as Atlantic, also offers reasonable service. Tucson Jet has ample transient hangar space, its own maintenance department and a Part 135 charter operation with a pair of older Citations. The company is also run by FBO professionals.

Premier Aviation is housed in an older building, but it does have room for a Falcon-class jet in its overnight hangar. The owners of Premier are constructing a $5 million, Million Air brand FBO slated to open on the field in the summer. The new 20,000-sq-ft executive terminal will hold client and tenant offices and have 20,000 sq ft of hangar space that can hold aircraft as large as a G550. 

TUS is proximate to several high-end resort/spa destinations, including Loew’s Ventana Canyon, home of the area’s only five-star restaurant (Mobil Guide).

The focus at nearby Ryan Airport, 12 miles to the west, is also piston operations, and there were 202,850 aircraft operations there in 2006. The longest of the two parallel runways is 5,500 feet, but there is a full instrument approach. Plans are in the works to expand the runways, but in the meantime most corporate operators are using either TUS or Marana.

Marana is located 22.5 nm northwest of TUS in a rapidly growing and affluent area and only 10 miles from the Galleria Golf Club, upscale ranch resorts such as the 4-0, high-end gated communities, and a new, soon-to-open Ritz-Carlton resort.

Marana is the airport of choice for those attending the Accenture match play golf tournament in late February. Tucson Aero Services is the sole FBO on the field. The airport features a huge ramp, with room for 75 corporate jets. Tucson Aero is planning a new modern FBO, corporate hangar complex and restaurant to open next year. A new control tower is scheduled to open within the next three years. The airport recently acquired 90 more acres. Over the last five years, annual aircraft takeoffs and landings have increased from 70,000 to 110,000, and the trend is continuing. There is extensive flight training at Marana and two dedicated areas south of the field where world-class aerobatic pilots train.