Two weeks after pinning on a new name to reflect its relationship with Phoenix, the Valley's burgeoning reliever airport launched its biggest airline service Thursday amid speeches, long waiting lines for tickets and optimism.
"This is going to be a terrific market for us," Allegiant Air President and CEO Maurice Gallagher told hundreds of passengers and guests in a packed terminal at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
"I've had my eye on this airport for many years."
Shortly after 8 a.m., Thursday the airlines' first trip from Gateway, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, departed with 108 passengers aboard the carrier's standard, 150-seat MD-80.
About 20 minutes later, Allegiant's second inaugural flight of the day at the airport lifted off the runway for Sioux Falls, S.D., with 124 passengers.
"This is history in the making," John Barry, the airport's marketing and development director, said as he stood in the terminal.
Russ and Betty Arendsee said they were happy to be a part of that history as they waited in a long line that led to ticket counters, security checkpoints and a large, secured passenger waiting room.
"It's wonderful that we don't have to go to Phoenix to fly home," Russ Arendsee said.
For years in late October, he said, the couple drove their motor home, towing a car behind it, from Arlington, S.D., to Mesa to visit friends and relatives.
In November, they drove back home in the car and would return to Mesa by car after the holidays.
"Now we can bring the motor home down and then fly back and forth," Betty Arendsee said.
The Arendsees represent the niche market that Allegiant began serving Thursday from Gateway, the newest of its four bases, with flights to 13 cities across the Northwest, Midwest and upper Midwest.
Gallagher said during an interview that the regional carrier has been reaping profits by serving smaller cities like Bellingham, Wash.; Stockton, Calif.; and Peoria, Ill., and expects to add Mesa to the moneymaker list.
Last year, Allegiant's parent, Allegiant Travel, reported fourth-quarter earnings of $18.84 million from passenger-service operations as part of the company's $63.1 million in earnings for the same period.
Valley airport officials and consultants have said that Allegiant, because of its experience and size, should provide Gateway its biggest boost for developing passenger service and help the former Air Force base turn the corner on that market.
The low-cost passenger carrier, which owns its airplanes and provides scheduled service to 55 cities across the nation, will serve all 13 markets from Gateway by Nov. 21.
David Baker, Allegiant's vice president of stations operations, said the airline also will continue its charter-service agreement with Harrah's casino for flights from Gateway to Laughlin, Nev.
He also noted that Allegiant was recently certified by the Department of Defense to fly charters carrying military personnel.
Although the airline flies to Las Vegas from other destinations, Baker said Allegiant has no intention of providing such service from Gateway while Vision Airlines, the airport's first scheduled passenger carrier, continues its Las Vegas flights.
"We have a very good relationship with Vision," he said.
Allegiant's Thursday flights marked the first scheduled passenger service since Oct. 15, when the airport's then name, Williams Gateway Airport, was changed to reflect its proximity to Phoenix.
Officials of the airline agreed earlier this year to begin the service if the airport's governing board would get Phoenix into the name to enhance the airfield's identification internationally.
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