Air Transportation in Virginia

there are General Aviation airports in Southwestern Virginia south and west of Roanoke, but no airport in that region of Virginia offers scheduled commercial passenger service (indicated by a red airplane symbol)
there are General Aviation airports in Southwestern Virginia south and west of Roanoke, but no airport in that region of Virginia offers scheduled commercial passenger service (indicated by a red airplane symbol)
Source: Virginia Department of Aviation, 2013 Virginia Air Transportation System Plan Update

Most Virginia airports are for general aviation, allowing private planes to land and offering ground services such as refueling. Such airports typically lack air traffic control towers, and pilots must pay close attention to other aircraft in the area when taking off or landing.

A general aviation airport in a rural area may not see a lot of traffic, but can be essential to the local economy. Even a small airport offers a fast connection for executives to reach urban centers, and communities seeking to recruit factories and other businesses highlight that connectivity. Funding to operate general aviation airports, while small by the standards of major commercial airports such as Washington Dulles, can be a significant challenge for local governments.

Mountain Empire Airport is a general aviation airport built in 1958 as a joint project by the counties of Wythe and Smyth, plus the towns of Wytheville, Rural Retreat and Marion. Rural Retreat withdrew from the partnership, and in 2014 Wythe County supervisors questioned the costs vs. benefits of spending about $60,000/year to stay in the Smyth/Wythe Airport Commission. Advocates for maintaining the public airport cited potential economic development advantages, and also safety benefits of providing a landing site for air ambulance services.1

Mountain Empire Airport is in Smyth County next to the Wythe County border, providing quick access for corporate and financial executives in Atlanta, Charlotte, Richmond, DC, etc. to reach factories and operations in that isolated rural area of southwestern Virginia
Mountain Empire Airport is in Smyth County next to the Wythe County border, providing quick access for corporate and financial executives in Atlanta, Charlotte, Richmond, DC, etc. to reach factories and operations in that isolated rural area of southwestern Virginia
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Nine airports in Virginia have scheduled commercial passenger service:

only two airports in Virginia offering scheduled commercial passenger service are located west of the Blue Ridge
only two airports in Virginia offering scheduled commercial passenger service are located west of the Blue Ridge
Source: National Atlas

Airports that offer scheduled commercial passenger service are clearly beneficial to economic development in a community. Such facilities draw customers from an area, a "hinterland," in the same way that port cities such as Alexandria established economic connections in the 1800's with rural areas that needed access to a seaport. The number of passengers boarding an airplane (enplanements) at an airport reflects the population of the area, competition from nearby airports, and of course the desire of residents in that region to fly somewhere else.

Of the nine airports in Virginia that offer scheduled passenger service, only two (Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport and Shenandoah Valley Regional, near Waynesboro) are west of the Blue Ridge.

For many in Southwestern Virginia, Charlotte (North Carolina) is the closest major airport offering regularly scheduled service by a commercial airline. Portions of Virginia west of the Blue Ridge are served by Mercer airport in West Virginia (near Bluefield) and by the Tri-Cities airport in Tennessee (near Bristol).

The two airports in Northern Virginia generated 20 million boardings in 2013, while the seven others combined generated only 4 million. The number of travelers using Virginia airports declined between 2007-2013, as the airlines focused on servicing major hubs and reduced flights from smaller airports. Scheduled domestic flights leaving from a Virginia airport dropped 12% during those years, a result of airlines exercising "capacity discipline" after the 2008 economic recession and limiting expansion during the recovery. Airlines have been quick to cancel flights that do not generate sufficient profit; while officials at Norfolk International Airport convinced Southwest to offer three Norfolk-Atlanta flights, they were dropped from the schedule in 2014 as the airline consolidated with AirTran and focused on using Boeing 737s.2

Five of the nine commercial airports are in Virginia's crescent-shaped population center, stretching from Northern Virginia through Richmond to Hampton Roads.

The last Virginia city to lose commercial air service was Danville. It had connections to Charlotte and Winston-Salem until 1995, but Danville Regional Airport is just a general aviation airport now. Danville lacked the population base to generate enough business, and the nearest competing airport in Greensboro, North Carolina was just 40 miles away. (In 2016, the Greyhound bus company also stopped servicing Danville due to low ridership. Customers were advised to catch the bus in Greensboro, North Carolina.)3

in 2013, over 80% of passengers using a Virginia airport got on board in Northern Virginia
in 2013, over 80% of passengers using a Virginia airport got on board in Northern Virginia
Source: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Passenger Boarding (Enplanement) and All-Cargo Data for U.S. Airports

Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport generates the lowest number of enplanements (commercial passengers getting on planes) in Virginia
Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport generates the lowest number of enplanements (commercial passengers getting on planes) in Virginia
Source: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), CY 2012 Passenger Boarding and All-Cargo Data

Demand for commercial service at Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport is too low to retain the business of a commercial carrier now. Flights continue only because they are subsidized through the Federal government's Essential Air Service program.

When airlines were deregulated in 1978, the Federal Department of Transportation was tasked by Congress to ensure commercial passenger service would continue for small communities located far from other airports. Before the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks triggered a 70% reduction in demand at the Shenandoah Valley airport, one carrier associated with US Airways provided access to Pittsburgh while a competing carrier associated with United Airlines offered flights to Dulles.4

In 2013, the only flights from that airport were United Express hops to Dulles, three times/day during the week. To maintain regular connections to the designated hub airport (Dulles), the commercial carrier servicing the Shenandoah Valley Regional airport was eligible to receive over $3 million annually in Essential Air Service subsidies. In 2011, that subsidy was roughly $140 for each of the 12,000 passengers that flew in or out of the airport.5

between 2007-13 - a time of major economic recession - passengers using Virginia airports declined by 5%
between 2007-13 - a time of major economic recession - passengers using Virginia airports declined by 5%
Source: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Passenger Boarding (Enplanement) and All-Cargo Data for U.S. Airports

Airport Competition: Richmond vs. Newport News/Williamsburg vs. Norfolk

Lynchburg Regional Airport (LYH)

Northern Virginia Airports: Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Reagan National Airport (DCA)

Developing Dulles Through Improved Road and Rail Access

Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport (ROA)

except for Staunton and Newport News-Williamsburg, average fares for flights from Virginia airports dropped more than national average between 1995-2015 (adjusted for constant 2015 dollars)
except for Staunton and Newport News-Williamsburg, average fares for flights from Virginia airports dropped more than national average between 1995-2015 (adjusted for constant 2015 dollars)
Source: US Department of Transportation – Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Average Domestic Airline Itinerary Fares By Origin City

Links

the places where potential local travelers would consider Lynchburg Regional Airport (LYH) to be the closest commercial service airport are defined as the primary and secondary catchment areas
the places where potential local travelers would consider Lynchburg Regional Airport (LYH) to be the closest commercial service airport are defined as the primary and secondary catchment areas
Source: Lynchburg Regional Airport Master Plan Update (2010)

References

1. "Airport supporters address Wythe board," Wythe News, August 15, 2014, http://www.swvatoday.com/news/smyth_county/article_afa4ec36-24ba-11e4-b38a-0017a43b2370.html (last checked August 15, 2014)
2. "Passenger Boarding (Enplanement) and All-Cargo Data for U.S. Airports," Federal Aviation Administration, http://www.faa.gov/airports/planning_capacity/passenger_allcargo_stats/passenger/; Michael D. Wittman, "Commercial Air Service at Virginia’s Airports: Challenges and Opportunities," Virginia News Letter, Volume 90 No. 5 (July 2014), p.2, p.5, http://www.coopercenter.org/publications/VANsltr0714; "Norfolk airport weighs sweeteners to lure more flights," The Virginian-Pilot, August 22, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/2014/08/norfolk-airport-weighs-sweeteners-lure-more-flights (last checked August 22, 2014)
3. "Why No Commercial Flights To DAN (Danville, VA)?," Airliners.net blog, May 3, 2011, http://www.airliners.net/aviation-forums/general_aviation/read.main/5133709/; "'Very low ridership' forces Greyhound out of Danville," Danville Register & Bee, April 19, 2016, http://www.godanriver.com/news/danville/very-low-ridership-forces-greyhound-out-of-danville/article_14711280-066d-11e6-9351-6756b621b664.html (last checked April 20, 2016)
4. "Essential Air Service at Staunton, Virginia," Order 2001-12-6, Department of Transportation, December 7, 2001, http://docketsinfo.dot.gov/general/orders/dec01/011206.pdf; "9/11 Remembered: Impact on Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport," NBC29, September 7, 2011, http://www.nbc29.com/story/15413079/911-remembered-impact-on-shenandoah-valley-regional-airport?clienttype=printable (last checked October 5, 2013)
5. "US Subsidized EAS Report for February 2013," US Department of Transportation, February 2013, http://www.dot.gov/office-policy/aviation-policy/us-subsidized-eas-report-february-2013; "Essential Air Service Subsidized Airports - Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport," Taxpayers for Common Sense, https://data.taxpayer.net/Transportation-Infrastructure/Essential-Air-Service-Subsidized-Airports-map/v67d-ad6t? (last checked October 5, 2013)


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