““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
The three main airports serving Tucson, Ariz., host an eclectic mix of aircraft and missions. Traffic at all three-Tucson International, Ryan and Marana-is on the upswing. But unlike at Phoenix 120 miles northwest, flight congestion around Tucson remains minimal, and you can get in and out of there fairly easily.
Tucson International (TIA) is the largest of the three airports and has the longest runway (10,996 feet). It's a busy place where you can find student helicopter pilots, F-16 fighters of the Arizona Air National Guard, jumbo jet freighters and airliners. The tower does a good job of keeping things separated, but your pilot definitely needs to be on his game.
TIA is where Learjets were once built and Bombardier still maintains a mammoth 847,000-square-foot maintenance and refurbishment center that employs 650 and works on everything from Learjets, Challengers and Globals to regional jets and water bombers. The place can hold 60 airplanes under roof and provide everything from a paint job or new interior to high-speed Internet and enhanced vision systems. Bombardier also maintains an FBO there, but its operation serves mainly as a courtesy to its customers.
There are way too many FBOs here: six, including Bombardier's, and a seventh is about to open. This is good news for price shoppers: almost all offer volume discounts and other incentives. But the irrational FBO competition at TIA is courtesy of an old Soviet-style Tucson Airport Authority (the governing body of both TIA and smaller Ryan Airfield nearby), which is populated by patronage babies who seem to delight in making life difficult for their private-enterprise tenants. (Getting a hangar approved can take two years, for example.)
The TAA also runs an FBO that incongruously 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 service can at least sometimes be anything but professional. During our visit, a clear overpopulation of line workers sat in the dirty and disheveled passenger terminal watching television while a counter worker and her supervisor traded loud obscenities. Requests for the most basic information were greeted with what can only charitably be called a poor attitude. Things in the executive offices are perhaps no better, as our repeated phone calls for information were not returned.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to this craven customer service. Atlantic Aviation (formerly Trajen Network) 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, which includes a full-time concierge, is courteous and efficient.
The Tucson Jet Center, while not as plush as Atlantic, also offers professional service. Tucson Jet has ample transient hangar space, its own maintenance department and a Part 135 charter operation with a pair of older Citations.
Premier Aviation is 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 in May. The 20,000-square-foot executive terminal will hold client and tenant offices, and 20,000 square feet of hangar space will accommodate aircraft as large as a Gulfstream G550.
The remaining FBO at TIA serves mainly piston-aircraft operators.
The focus at nearby Ryan Airport is also piston operations. The longest of the two parallel runways is only 5,000 feet long (fine in winter, not great during 100-degree summer days), but there is a full instrument approach. Plans are in the works to expand the runways but, meanwhile, most corporate operators are using TIA or Marana.
Marana Regional Airport is northwest of TIA in a rapidly growing, affluent area and only 10 miles from the Galleria Golf Club, upscale ranch resorts and gated communities and a soon-to-open Ritz-Carlton resort. Marana is growing fast: In 1977, it encompassed 20 square miles; now it fills 110.
This was the airport of choice for those who attended the Accenture match play golf tournament in late February. Tucson Aero Services is the sole FBO on the field. The ramp here is huge, with room for 75 corporate jets. Tucson Aero is planning a modern FBO, corporate hangar complex and restaurant to open in 2009. A new control tower is scheduled to open within three years. The airport recently acquired 90 more acres. Over the last five years, annual takeoffs and landings have increased from 70,000 to 110,000-and the trend is continuing. There is extensive flight training at Marana and world-class aerobatic pilots train in two dedicated areas south of the field.
Tucson offers the executive business jet traveler a myriad of choices. The market has shown constant growth and the service and facilities, overall, are improving.