The Tucson Airport Authority board unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday backing development of World View Enterprises’ new headquarters and Spaceport Tucson, despite some lingering safety concerns.
The measure also commits the airport to work with the Federal Aviation Administration and key stakeholders during the licensing process, to ensure the safe operation of the high-altitude balloon operation under construction south of Tucson International Airport.
At a TAA board study session last month, officials of Southwest Airlines and American Airlines voiced concerns over the safety of launching balloons from the spaceport site about a mile and a half south of Tucson International Airport’s runways.
Southwest subsequently sent a letter to the TAA board, requesting a pause in board action — as well as in site construction — pending FAA approval.
In adopting the resolution of support, TAA board chairman Tony Finley and other board members noted that it is the FAA’s responsibility, not the airport’s, to vet the balloon operation and address any safety concerns as part of its licensing process.
Board members noted that the World View resolution is consistent with a measure the TAA board adopted in 2013, supporting Pima County’s economic development plans, including the proposed aerospace and defense business park World View would initially anchor.
Member Mike Hannley said the board has considered concerns expressed by stakeholders in letters and in two meetings since the July study session “including threats, even though they are uninformed, from the airlines.”
Besides Southwest, the airline trade group Airlines for America and the National Business Aviation Association recently sent letters to the TAA board, expressing concern that required initial safety studies have not been performed.
Hannley said the airport authority was caught in the middle of the issue, even though the balloon facility is not on airport property, but it’s up to the FAA to study safety issues among others as part of its licensing process.
“My concern is that we’re becoming the center of a firestorm in the aviation industry,” said Hannley, CEO of Bank of Tucson.
Pima County is developing the spaceport site and is constructing a building for World View to lease for balloon manufacturing and payload preparation. The county owns the property and building and will lease it to World View, which will also manage the launch pad under contract. The concrete spaceport launch pad is already completed.
World View is in a pre-application process with the Federal Aviation Administration for licenses to operate a launch site and commercial manned vehicles and expects to enter the formal application process early next year, said Taber MacCallum, World View co-founder and chief technology officer.
“At this point, it’s up to the FAA,” MacCallum said, expressing confidence in winning the necessary licenses.
If approved, Spaceport Tucson would be the closest to a commercial airport than any of the 10 current FAA-approved space launch sites.
World View estimates it would eventually average one early-morning balloon launch per week from the spaceport, tracked and controlled by the Tucson air-traffic control tower.
World View has committed to eventually hiring more than 400 employees, and the county has estimated the project will have an economic impact of $3.5 billion over 20 years.
The project has won backing from local business groups including the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, the Tucson Metro Chamber, the Arizona Technology Council, the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Sun Corridor Inc. and the Downtown Tucson Partnership.
However, the deal with World View is the target of a pending lawsuit filed by the Goldwater Institute against Pima County, challenging as unconstitutional the use of taxpayer money to finance development of the World View property.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said he expects World View to attract similar private space-travel companies.
“When you think of World View being a pioneer in that business, I think they’ll be followed fairly quickly by others,” Huckelberry said.