A web of cracks stretches across the asphalt between hangars and weeds of all kinds poke up through the aging surface at the Nogales International Airport off State Route 82.
“We grow crops out there,” joked Mary Dahl, director of the County Community Development Department, which oversees the airport.
Those crops won’t be around long, however. The County Board of Supervisors recently approved a roughly $1.5-million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to replace the deteriorating asphalt with longer-lasting concrete, Dahl said. The work will begin after the monsoon season ends.
The apron replacement is one of the first of a number of capital projects the county hopes to carry out at the airport in the short and long term, with an eye toward attracting more business and increasing capacity to handle larger aircraft.
An apron is the part of an airport where aircraft park, load, refuel or are boarded, but does not include the runway. The FAA’s grant will cover 91 percent of the project’s cost, with the Arizona Department of Transportation and the county sharing the remaining costs evenly.
“The federal grant is just a phenomenally good bargain for the county,” said Larry Tiffin, who operates the airport for the county through his company Tiffin Aviation Services. “Any time you can pick up a couple million dollars for four percent is not a bad deal.”
Tiffin said that there is an aesthetic element to the apron project that could have significant financial implications.
“I think that you could see that it’s in very bad condition, as to be virtually nonexistent,” he said. “It doesn’t lend itself to people wanting to base aircraft here, or use the facilities. Not that they are bad facilities, but it has reached a point where those need to be repaired.”
There are also more practical considerations, he added. Airport staff currently has to put in a lot of work sweeping up loose rocks, spraying herbicide to keep the weeds at bay, and even mowing when they get thick.
“We spend a lot of time with our sweeper and vacuum cleaning up the loose debris,” he said. “An airplane could pick up a rock and damage a propeller, and one propeller is worth $12,000.”
Following the apron improvements, the county also hopes to construct a new fueling facility, build new service roads, and prevent erosion in the near term, intentions that are laid out in the Airport Master Plan, which was approved by the supervisors in February. In the medium- and long-term, officials hope to improve taxiways and extend the runway by 300 feet, which would enable to airport to handle larger aircraft.
Successfully completing the apron work and other improvements makes future grant applications more competitive, Tiffin said.
All of the projects are estimated to cost around $12.7 million, most of which would be covered by FAA grants. The county’s share for all of the capital improvements officials would like to see comes out to roughly $622,000, according to the master plan.
County officials anticipate modest growth in the number of aircraft based at the airport and annual operations in the short term. In 2012, the latest year included in the master plan, there were 9,334 takeoffs or landings at the airport, which is down significantly since the Great Recession.
Much of the current business centers around pilot instruction, cargo and business jet flights.
While the airport is operated by Tiffin, the county receives a share of revenues, meaning that an increase in usage could benefit local government’s bottom line. Tiffin said that the county’s annual share is usually around $100,000.
The master plan is available for download on the county community development department’s website.