Aviation has always pushed boundaries and been at the forefront of innovation and progress. But a long-term development at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport is expected to take innovation to a new level and revolutionize the way products are transported from the U.S. to Mexico. In turn, experts say the development will create thousands of jobs, provide economic opportunities for companies, and offer students another way to gain invaluable knowledge and experience.
SkyBridge Arizona is a 360-acre, long-term development at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport that will allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Mexican Customs officers to work side by side to jointly inspect and process shipments in preparation for international transit.
“SkyBridge is a great asset to add to what we have at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport,” says Ryan Smith, director, communications and government relations, Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport Authority. “We view Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport not as much as an airport, but as a large redevelopment project that just happens to have an airport. So when you look at a project like SkyBridge, with lots of acreage and direct access to three 10,000-foot runways, the possibilities are limitless as to what you can produce there and what can locate at SkyBridge.”
According to Gov. Doug Ducey’s office, SkyBridge is a $230 million commercial development that will have 2 million square feet of warehouse space, 1 million square feet of office space, 800,000 square feet of air cargo operations, 900,000 square feet of light industrial and flex space, and 100,000 square feet of retail and restaurants. It is also expected to increase cargo flights out of Phoenix-Mesa Gateway to 2,000 per year, a number that will skyrocket to 10,000 by 2036.
Growth of air freight between Arizona and Mexico grew 180 percent from 2011 to 2015, outpacing all other modes of transport, according to Ducey’s office. Air freight trade between Arizona and Mexico currently totals $390 million per year and is expected to expand to $650 million by 2025.
Kevin Cosca, senior vice president, CBRE, says the former Williams Air Force base was antiquated when East Valley municipalities took it over a long time ago. Since then there has been a considerable amount of work done to bring the airport up to standards for “passenger routing, hangar-type businesses, aircraft manufacturers, and aerospace and defense companies. With three runways, the airport’s capacity is unmatched.”
That growth since the airport was established as Williams Gateway Airport in 1994, and then renamed Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in 2008, has led to five commercial airlines flying to more than 45 destinations, hosting more than 40 companies on site, and the airport area is developing as an international aerospace center with aircraft maintenance, modification, testing, and pilot training.
“It’s almost like Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport has become an overnight success that took 10 years,” says Denny Barney, president and CEO of East Valley Partnership. “The City of Mesa installed the Ray Road Loop and put all the infrastructure in and then had to wait for the alignment of the stars. Then, you saw one building, then two buildings and then eight buildings. It’s almost like they put water in the ground and they started popping up. And it’s going to continue to grow.”
Laws of attraction
CBRE Senior Vice President Jackie Orcutt says the activity and success of the five commercial carriers out of Phoenix-Mesa Gateway and Arizona State University’s Polytechnic Campus within the airport’s boundaries, in addition to several flight schools and well-established manufacturing businesses, is likely what spurred initial interest in SkyBridge more than two years ago.
“Phoenix-Mesa Gateway recognized that they had a 360-acre land parcel just southwest of the runway. There are very few tertiary commercial airports across the country that have this much land available for development,” Orcutt says. “With SkyBridge’s proposal to bring a unique international cargo expediting process to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, they were ultimately able to negotiate a land lease that would enable them to bring this project to life.”
SkyBridge will be jointly operated between U.S. and Mexico customs officers, Orcutt says.
“SkyBridge’s unique process enables products shipped via air cargo between the U.S. and Mexico to undergo all necessary customs processes on- site at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport through a program called Unified Cargo Processing (UCP),” Orcutt says.
With Mexican customs officials on site at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, the customs approval process can happen before the plane departs from the U.S. to Mexico, Orcutt says, allowing cargo to be delivered to its destination the very same day.
“In the past, there’s been a bottleneck for delivery of product to Mexico via air cargo and it could take up to 14 days for cargo product to make it through customs once it had landed in Mexico,” Orcutt says. “This process allows it to happen essentially the same day.”
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), air cargo transports $6 trillion in value of goods, more than 60 million people have jobs supported by the aviation industry, and air cargo represents 35 percent of global trade by value, but less than 1 percent of trade by volume.
In 24 hours in the air cargo industry, IATA statistics show that 100,000 planes take off, 20 million parcels are sent, 140,000 tons of cargo are carried, $18.6 billion value in cargo is shipped, and 657 million packages worth $17.8 billion are sent.
“SkyBridge is going to the first-of-its-kind inland port, where people can brings goods and products on a plane and clear customs here and get to metropolitan areas in Mexico, which is our largest trading partner,” Barney says.
Just how big could SkyBridge be? Barney thinks he has an answer.
“When you think about SkyBridge, consider this: How big of a game-changer was Amazon?” Barney asks. “The first year I used Amazon, I had one order, then three and then 12. The whole face of shopping and receiving goods was changed by Amazon. Similarly, we think SkyBridge is going to be a dramatic game-changer. From an inland port standpoint, it’s going to open up other opportunities that people haven’t considered yet.”
Experts agree with Barney’s lofty assessment.
“The impact that SkyBridge will have for international transit of air cargo products will be tremendous,” Orcutt says. “Feedback from logistics providers and large global users who currently ship products via air cargo to Mexico has been very positive. Phoenix-Mesa Gateway and SkyBridge have had several test runs employing the unified cargo process and all have been very successful. This process is a game-changer and it will revolutionize the way third-party logistics companies distribute product from the U.S. to Mexico.”
More jobs landing
The leaders of SkyBridge estimate 10,000-12,000 new jobs will be created within the next decade on site, based on the mixed use of the 3.5 million square feet slated for development, and that’s just within Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
“SkyBridge has already been approved to develop on two parcels of land and the remaining 355 acres will likely receive FAA approval by summer 2019,” Orcutt says. “At that time, the master plan can move forward. That plan includes 3.5 million square feet of state-of-the-art facilities geared towards attracting various industries to the area.”
Potential tenants at SkyBridge will range from flight schools, which train commercial, private and government-related pilots; to original equipment manufacturers.
“Additionally, SkyBridge has a collaboration with Arizona State University Polytechnic campus, which offers several programs focused on aerospace, technology and defense-related technology,” Orcutt says.
That collaboration will be a way for the airport and ASU to not only educate students, but provide opportunities for learning, growth and the potential for full-time employment.
“One of the biggest assets for Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport itself is the proximity to three great educational institutions — Arizona State University, Chandler-Gilbert Community College and the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT),” Smith says. “ASU and Chandler-Gilbert have done a great job of molding their curriculum and what they offer to prospective students that are looking to get into the aviation industry — whether that’s future pilots, air traffic controllers or aircraft mechanics.”
In addition to the educational component, SkyBridge has the potential to add great value to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport through trade, e-commerce and economic development opportunities that will be presented through on-site companies and potential tenants.
“If you’ve driven past the airport recently, you see there is tremendous growth happening, especially at the north end,” Barney says. “A lot of that is larger warehouse and manufacturing facilities, which take up a lot of square footage, but don’t necessarily translate into a high number of jobs. SkyBridge is transforming that into a higher-tech, higher-demand, higher-value proposition that we think elevates the entire jobs market around the airport and makes it into a true center of excellence.”
Companies currently on site at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway include aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul, aircraft operations, airlines, aviation shops, supplies and distribution, building development, consumer and construction services, education and flight training, government, manufacturing, rental cars, food and beverage and retail.
“Our central location, as it relates to the Southwest U.S., and proximity to Latin America and Mexico, makes us a unique setup and once you involve and include the unified cargo processing program and lots of land, it’s really a setup unlike any other in the entire country,” Smith says. “And it’s something that SkyBridge has committed to seeing be successful as we continue to grow our commercial passenger service. As the growth in the Southeast Valley continues, I think we will see opportunities on the business side where people locate their business and take advantage of all that Gateway has to offer.”
One of those businesses is Able Aerospace. Able relocated to its headquarters at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in 2013. Since that time, it has added more than 200 employees and expanded its footprint, adding new mezzanine space, a new paint facility and the build-out of hangar space that is now home to the Able Maintenance Center.
“Able’s original campus is the result of a successful public-private partnership between our company, the City of Mesa and the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport Authority,” says Gabriel Massey, general manager of Able Aerospace Services. “The airport and city have a clear vision for the East Valley’s aviation-related economy and that – combined with a very strong local workforce – continues to fuel our effort to operate as a world-class, customer-first component repair and overhaul provider.”
In December 2018, Able broke ground on an additional 50,000-square-foot building expansion, which Massey says Able will use to enhance the technology employed in their repair and overhaul process, in addition to new product and service offerings. Massey says that expansion is expected to generate
as many as 100 new, local, skilled aerospace jobs over the next two years.
“Our strong and positive relationship with the airport and the city has helped us to grow in size, capabilities and revenue,” he says. “In turn, we have added hundreds of new jobs to the local market. When it came time to pick a location for our latest expansion, the Airport Authority and City of Mesa made our decision to stay and expand at our current site a very easy one.”
That expansion includes additions to their original 191,000-square-foot building.
“Those expansions have allowed us to continue to grow in areas of high industry demand, including new equipment and repairs that allow us to support the latest aircraft models and a maintenance center that provides expert aircraft completion services, including state-of-the-art avionics upgrades,” he says.
Massey says Able supports almost 1,500 civilian and military customers in 60 countries worldwide with more than 10,000 FAA-approved component repair, overhaul, parts and aircraft completion services.
“Our latest expansion, which is slated to be complete this summer, will allow us to continue to grow and respond to market needs,” Massey says. “It is a strategically paced evolution that keeps us at the forefront of technology and capabilities so that we can keep our customers across the world safely flying.”
Not only is SkyBridge going to impact companies on site at the airport like Able, but Orcutt says, “SkyBridge is quickly becoming a target for users in various industries, including manufacturing, e-commerce, air cargo and logistics, corporate hanger users, freight forwarding, defense contractors, electronic manufacturers and distributors, airline manufacturing, MROs and general-purpose warehousing.
“SkyBridge is not only going to revolutionize the aircraft industry,” she says, “it has the potential to revolutionize the distribution and e-commerce industries.”