ST. GEORGE — Gov. Spencer Cox stopped by the St. George Regional Airport on Thursday to discuss the need for an air traffic control tower and the possibility of state funding.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to media about the St. George Regional Airport’s need for an air traffic control tower, St. George, Utah, Jan. 11, 2024 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“There’s so much more traffic coming in right now between SkyWest (Airlines) and general aviation – so we need a tower here,” Cox told reporters while visiting the hanger where the Utah Department of Public Safety’s Southern Aero Bureau and helicopter is housed. “People love St. George, and people are coming here.”

Accompanying the governor were local state legislators like Sen. Don Ipson and Reps. Neil Waters and Joseph Elison, as well as officials from Washington County, the city of St. George and SkyWest Airlines. Earlier that day the governor spoke at the annual “What’s Up Down South” St. George Economic Summit.

Growth in Washington County has put mounting pressure on local infrastructure, and the St. George Regional Airport is no different. Work already is underway to expand the airport’s terminal ramp and apron (plane maintenance and parking area) in order to accommodate larger aircraft used by SkyWest and its partners.

Flights in and out of the airport – which is currently handled by air traffic controllers in Los Angeles – have increased for both SkyWest and general aviation. The latter includes private, charter and corporate flights, some of which are served through the resident fixed-based operator facilities such as Million Air.

In this file photo a commercial flight from the seasonal Dallas-Fort Worth connection is seen from the St. George Regional Airport’s observation lounge as it connects with a jet bridge allowing passengers to disembark, St. George, Utah, Sept. 26, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The airport saw its highest passenger numbers in 2021 — nearly 326,000 — as travel rebounded from the COVID-19 pandemic. Though 2022 saw a dip in passengers  (274,500), the end of 2023 saw an increase, with over 298,000 people going to and from the airport.

“We’re also seeing some overflow from Las Vegas,” Cox said.

Major events held in Las Vegas, such as the Formula 1 race in December, resulted in planes being flown to and parked at the St. George Regional Airport due to a lack of room available at Harry Reed International.

This pattern is expected to repeat next month with Super Bowl LVIII being held in Las Vegas on Feb. 11.

While a local air traffic control tower would aid in efficiently managing and regulating the traffic brought in by major events held in Las Vegas and St. George, it would also help air traffic overall, St. George Regional Airport director Rich Stehmeier said. The safety factor that can be created by the use of a control tower is a nice byproduct of efficient air traffic management, he said.

In a previous email Stehmeier sent to St. George News, he recounted incidents where frustrated and impatient pilots created safety issues on the runway.

While a part of the problem related to some pilots having to work around construction on the airport’s terminal ramp and apron, Stehmeier wrote that “one way that we will mitigate this type of situation in the future will be to build an air traffic control tower.”

A rendering of what an air traffic control tower for the St. George Regional Airport may look like once built | Image courtesy of the city of St. George, St. George News

Efficient management of air traffic will also help SkyWest Airlines expand its service in St. George, said Robert Simmons, the CFO of the St. George-based regional airline.

SkyWest manages the commercial flights in and out of the airport and handles 2,000 flights a day across the country, Simmons said.

Through its partnerships with Delta, United and American Airlines, SkyWest offers connector flights to Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Arizona, and Denver, Colorado, as well as a seasonal flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas.

SkyWest also is one of Washington County’s largest employers and the largest regional airline in the world.

“The growth in Southern Utah has been phenomenal as we all know,” Simmons said. “But we’re starting to outgrow some of the infrastructure we have down here, including the airport.”

As demand for SkyWest flights grows, Simmons said the airline will allocate resources where it feels flights will be in a safe environment to operate – and an air traffic tower falls right into that consideration.

“We’re excited about some of these potential improvements to Southern Utah so we can allocate more resources toward growth here,” he said. “We’d love to expand our footprint out of St. George, which would hugely benefit the state and Southern Utah.”

L-R: Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and state Sen. Don Ipson listen to SkyWest Airlines SFO Robert Simmons detail how a control tower for the airport would benefit the St. George Region Airport and local SkyWest operations, St. George, Utah, Jan. 11, 2024 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

In addition to a control tower benefiting local SkyWest operations, Shawn Guzman, city attorney and government affairs officer for the city of St. George, said it will have a positive economic impact on the local and state levels. This is due to St. George’s proximity to Zion National Park and the overall growth in outdoor recreation across the region.

“People now want to bypass Las Vegas and fly directly to St. George and then from here go out to visit the Mighty Five (national parks),” Guzman said. “They want to go hiking and biking and recreate – so this airport is unique in that respect.”

The Federal Aviation Administration previously approved a control tower for the St. George Regional Airport. However, Stehmeier said the airport has until 2027 to build the tower, so getting funding from the state sooner rather than later would help move that process along.

The state granted $10 million to the city of St. George last year, which is being applied to the airport, Stehmeier said. A part of that funding is going to study potential sites for the proposed tower, along with an environmental impact study followed by a design for the tower.

Other state-funded projects include the completion of a road that connects to the northern side of the airport, the purchase of additional land for future expansion and the internal expansion of the airport terminal’s “secure area” where passengers gather to await their flights.

This file photo shows a SkyWest aircraft parked on the ramp at St. George Regional Airport,  St. George, Utah, Sept. 14, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

The cost of the tower is estimated to be between $15 million to $20 million, Cox said, adding that while the need for the control tower would likely be an easy sale to the Legislature, a desire to fund certain projects and actually having the funds to do that are in question this year.

Revised numbers for the state’s 2024 budget will be published in February, which is when the Legislature will begin to determine what can and cannot be funded. There’s not as much money available in the state budget this year compared to previous years due to a slowdown in the economy, the governor said, so the Legislature will have to be picky about how the budget is allocated.

Along with deciding what projects may get funding, legislators are also looking at another round of potential income tax cuts that could preempt the funding of projects like the tower.

“We’ll figure it out,” Cox said. “I think people will be very supportive of this project.”

The 2024 general session of the Utah Legislature begins Tuesday.

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