Airports 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 or leaving an airplane (enplanenents) 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).
Five of the nine commercial airports are in Virginia's crescent-shaped population center, stretching from Northern Virginia through Richmond to Hampton Roads. Danville had commercial air service connections to Charlotte and Winston-Salem until 1995, but today Danville Regional Airport is just a general aviation airport.1
Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport generates the lowest number of enplanements (commercial passengers getting on/off 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.2
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.3
Richmond/Hampton Roads Competition
There is a fragmented rather than regional approach to airport development in the Richmond/Hampton Roads area. The three separate airports in Richmond, Newport News, and Norfolk are managed by different agencies, and each is tied to the separate business community in each city.
Regularly scheduled flights began at Richmond International Airport (originally named Byrd Field) in 1932. That facility is managed by the Capital Region Airport Commission, governed by commissioners from the City of Richmond and counties of Hanover, Henrico, and Chesterfield.4
Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport was built after World War Two on the site of the US Army's Camp Patrick Henry. Commercial air service started in 1949. The Peninsula Airport Commission adopted the name "Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport" in 1990 to "to better position it as the airport of choice for the region," but the airport code is still PHF for the 1949 name Patrick Henry Field.
Efforts to get the city of Hampton to help finance a new terminal at the airport failed in 1989, after conflicts regarding costs/benefits could not be resolved. The Peninsula Airport Commission, which runs Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, still has appointees from Hampton, but 2/3 are from Newport News. There are no longer any representatives from Williamsburg, James City County, or York County.5
Commercial flights began at the site of today's Norfolk International Airport in 1938. That facility, orginally the Norfolk Municipal Airport, is governed by the Norfolk Airport Authority. Commissioners are appointed by the City Council of Norfolk; no other political jurisdiction in Hampton Roads has an official vote.
The three airports continue to invest in upgrading separate facilities, compete for business, and split the customer base between three facilities. Passenger traffic at the Norfolk International Airport dropped 20% between 2005-2013, but the airport authority still proposed building a second runway for $300 million. The original justification for the expansion was to accomodate increasing demand. In 2014, the new justification was to provide redundancy, but the mayor of Virginia Beach advocated expansion in hopes of increasing the number of flights and getting an airline to go from Norfolk to Europe.6
The biggest impact of dividing the market: because there is an small number of passengers leaving from any one of the three airports, community business leaders find it difficult to retain their low-cost airlines.
Between 1999-2005, the Richmond airport had some of the highest fares in the country. Richmond lost AirTran service in 1999 but Newport News retained it, because Newport News was willing to provide an income guarantee as a subsidy to the private airline but Richmond was not. Once Richmond convinced a low-cost airline (AirTran) to provide service again, rates dropped substantially based on the "Southwest Effect" (i.e., competition...).7
In 2011, after Southwest Airlines acquired AirTran, the airline announced plans to cancel AirTran service at Newport News in 2012 - but to continue to fly from Norfolk and Richmond. Why the shift? Starting in 2000, Richmond spent $50 million to upgrade the airport terminal, and reduced landing fees by 20%.
Norfolk International Airport has one main runway and a parallel taxiway, and Virginia Beach has encouraged expansion of capacity even after passenger demand dropped 20%
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Little Creek 7.5x7.5 topographic quad (2013)
Then, in 2010, the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce launched the "Save Low Fares" campaign with a specific goal:8
In 2011, AirTran was the dominant carrier at the Newport News airport, carrying almost 50% of all passengers. The impact was immediate; total passengers at Newport News/Williamsburg had exceeded 1,000,000 annually from 2005-2011, but dropped to less than 650,000 in 2012. The airport's response to the decision by AirTran was to attract a new low-cost airline. The executive director of the airport said:9
Sure enough, low-cost airline Allegiant Air announced plans to start flying between Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport and Orlando even before AirTran shut down operations. Allegiant Air operated seasonally, with no flights to Orlando between mid-August and mid-October, but pulled out in 2014 after a competing low-cost airline started flying year-round.10
PeoplExpress announced plans in April 2012 to fly from Newport News/Williamsburg to Pittsburgh, Newark, Providence (RI), Orlando and West Palm Beach (FL). The airline finally started service in June 2014, so Newport News/Williamsburg had regular service from three major carriers (Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines and US Airways) plus PeoplExpress.
Having a low-cost carrier at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport appears essential for generating traffic, but the ability of PeoplExpress to survive was questioned as soon as it started flying. The start-up used a business model (leasing services from a separate charter airline) that has never succeeded since airlines were deregulated in the 1980's.11
The airport also serves for training pilots, mechanics, and other aviation specialists. Denbigh High School's Aviation Academy has offered classes for high school students at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport since 1995. In 2013, Liberty University expanded its School of Aviation to offer flight training, to accompany its online bachelor’s degrees, at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport. That site was chosen as Liberty University's first training airport, outside of the school's base at Lynchburg Regional Airport, because it was located within 50 miles of eight military bases.12
Northern Virginia Airports
Hoover Airport was built at the Virginia side of the 14th Street Bridge
Source: Library of Congress, Aerial View of South End of Highway Bridge, 14th Street Underpass Looking Northeast, 1932
National Airport was built downstream from the 14th Street Bridge
Source: Library of Congress, Aerial View of Potomac and Area to be Filled With Dredging Operation in Lower Right Corner, 1930
The two airports located in Northern Virginia (Dulles and Reagan National) are the busiest in Virginia. Both Dulles and Reagan National were built by the Federal government, and are still Federally-owned. In contrast to the competition in Richmond/Hampton Roads, both Dulles and Reagan National are managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA). That essentially eliminates competition between the two, but Maryland active boosts its BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport in Baltimore with Southwest Airlines as the lead carrier.
The first commercial airport in Northern Virginia was built in 1925 by a Philadelphia company, so it could offer passenger service between Philadelphia-DC. That private airport was located at the Virginia terminus of the 14th Street Bridge, and soon consolidated with the Washington Airport built just across the road. The site was obstructed by the Navy's radio towers and the Arlington Beach amusement park's roller coaster, and traffic on a public road had to be blocked in order for planes to take off or land.13
National Airport was built in 1941. That freed up the space occupied by the small Washington-Hoover airport, and the Pentagon near the old airport location. Because the new National Airport was constructed on land dredged up from the Potomac River, it was not clear if the facility was located in the District of Columbia or Virginia. In 1945, Congress defined the boundary as the mean high water mark, placing the airport in Virginia.14
World War II and the advent of jets made clear that National Airport would be unable to handle future traffic, and in 1950 Congress passed the Second Washington Airport Act. The Federal government's Civil Aeronautics Administration considered Annandale in Fairfax County and Chantilly on the Loudoun/Fairfax boundary (site of the existing Blue Ridge Airport), but chose the farming community of Burke as the site and purchased 4,500 acres.
However, by the 1950's the Fairfax County farmers who had relied upon the railroad depot at Burke Station to ship milk and produce to Alexandria/DC had been replaced by government workers commuting from a new post-war suburban community. The new residents were white-collar workers willing to "fight city hall." The Federal government acted slower than urban sprawl, and the Burke Airport Relocation Committee was effective at lobbying Congress to force reconsideration of the preferred site. Choices considered in the second selection process included Andrews Air Force Base, Pender (near Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax County), and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (known then as Friendship International Airport).
In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted his advisor's recommendation to build at the Chantilly site. It too was occupied, but the residents of the community of Willard were blacks in an era of segregation. (Calling the airport site Chantilly after the nearest white community, and ignoring the name of the actual site occupied by blacks for 50 years, reflected the prejudices of the time as well as the relative prosperity of Chantilly vs. Willard.)
Unlike Burke, resistance by Willard residents to block the airport was not effective. The Federal Aviation AAdministration (successor to the Civil Aeronautics Administration) acquired 10,000 acres, removed 300 existing structures, and constructed a new airport. It was not named after a local geographic feature; the airport commemorates Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who died in 1959 from cancer.15
Dulles opened in 1962, as "the first airport built specifically to handle jet aircraft."16
control tower at Reagan National Airport
Dulles was underutilized until the 1990's. The Perimeter Rule passed by Congress limited nonstop aircraft flights from Reagan National to distances of 1,250 miles or less, which helped spur traffic at Dulles. However, passengers in a hurry prefer the closer-in airport. Intermittently various legislators from the western states attempt to relax/abolish the Perimeter Rule. The Virginia legislature supported the 1,250 mile perimeter rule, in part to minimize the noise burden in Arlington of long-distance jets. In 2000, Congress permitted the FAA to allow six round-trip flights to points outside the perimeter.17
Until 1987, the two airports in Northern Virginia were operated by the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation. To streamline the process for making long-term capital improvements without interference from short-term political considerations, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) was created in 1986 and the airports were leased for 50 years (until 2067). The lease fee was set at $3,000,000/year in 1987, with adjustments for inflation.18
The decision to lease, rather than transfer ownership, protected the ownership claim of Federal taxpayers who funded construction of the airports, and the authority of Congress to control the sites. Reflecting its retained authority, in 1998 Congress renamed National as "Ronald Reagan National Airport."
The airports authority, once it becamed an independent agency, issued long-term capital bonds financed by projected landing fees and concessioner profits. Borrowing money like a business, rather than relying upon Federal appropriations, enabled the authority to fund expansion of capacity and efficiency at both airports and compete more effectively with Baltimore-Washington International in Maryland.
Composition of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority reflects the political disputes over the management of the airports, and concerns of Maryland officials that Baltimore-Washington International should continue to thrive. The original composition of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board was debated extensively in 1986. Ultimately, 13 people were appointed to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, with 5 appointed by the Governor of Virginia, 3 appointed by the Mayor of the District of Columbia, 2 appointed by the Governor of Maryland; and 3 members appointed by the President.
The composition of the board was changed in 2012 to give Virginia more authority. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority had assumed responsibility for the Rail-to-Dulles project (Silver Line), and the Dulles Toll Road was transferred to the authority so it could raise tolls to fund the Silver Line extension. Costs ballooned past projections, contracting practices involved questionable ethics, and Virginia's governor was a Republican concerned that appointees made by the previous Democratic governor would sign a "project labor agreement" for Phase 2 of the Silver Line.
Under the previous governor, Tim Kaine, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority had signed a project labor agreement for Phase 1 and committed to union wages and working conditions. The other two local jurisdictions on the authority's board, Maryland and the District of Columbia, were governed by Democrats, and the President was also a Democrat sympathetic to organized labor. After the airport stated in 2011 that it planned to require a project labor agreement for Phase 2, Gov. Bob McDonnell threatened to withold $150 million in state funding. That caused to Federal government to slow down its funding commitments, so the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority then softened its contract "requirement" to a "preference."19
After Federal law authorized expansion of the board and DC concurred, the governor of Virginia appointed two new members - over opposition of the incumbent board and Fairfax County officials, who objected to what they viewed as state interference. Today the legislation reads:20
National Airport was built in 1941 by depositing dredge spoils on the edge of the Potomac River, and it took an act of Congress to clarify that the new airport was located in Virginia rather than in the District of Columbia
Source: Library of Congress, Aerial view of Washington, D.C., with Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Potomac River to the left
In 2013, the Roanoke Regional Airport Commission renamed the airport, adding Blacksburg to the name. The old "Roanoke Regional Airport" name was relatively recent, adopted in 1987 when a commission of Roanoke city and county officials assumed responsibility for Woodrum Field.21
The 2013 name change reflected increased political cooperation and economic integration of the Roanoke Valley with the New River Valley. Virginia Tech has spurred economic activity at the university's corporate park, and the university is the largest corporate user of the airport in Roanoke. The Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport in Blacksburg itself does not offer scheduled commercial service.
Modern cities require easy access to jet travel, and easy access to university expertise. Roanoke offers the airport, while Blacksburg offers the university.
One remaining issue is the distance between the university and airport. Proposals to upgrade the road connection between the two places has resulted in improvements to US 460 and I-81, but efforts to create a more-direct route, extending the "Smart Road" to create a US 460 cut-off through Ellett Valley, stalled due to issues with environmental impacts and cost of constructing the extension through the valley and ridges in the area.
References1. "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/ (last checked October 5, 2013)
2. "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)
3. "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)
4. "Capital Region Airport Commission," Richmond International Airport, http://www.flyrichmond.com/index.php/about-us/capital-region-airport-commission (last checked October 5, 2013)
5. "Airport History," Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, http://www.flyphf.com/content/index.php/airport-history.html; "Cities' Merger Considered, Rejected," Newport News Daily Press, January 30, 1992, http://articles.dailypress.com/1992-01-30/news/9201300064_1_port-city-consolidation-issue-majority-of-city-council (last checked April 19, 2014)
6. "Airport seeks 2nd runway despite fewer passengers," The Virginian-Pilot, April 5, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/node/712284 (last checked April 17, 2014)
7. "Newport News lured AirTran and saved its struggling airport," Hampton Roads Business Journal, February 25, 2002, http://www.insidebiz.com/news/newport-news-lured-airtran-and-saved-its-struggling-airport (last checked August 15, 2011)
8. "AirTran leaving Newport News airport next year," Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 02, 2011, http://www2.timesdispatch.com/business/2011/aug/02/tdbiz01-airtran-leaving-newport-news-airport-next--ar-1211592/; "Will Richmond's Campaign to Save Low-fares Take Off?," Richmond.com, March 7, 2011, http://www2.richmond.com/m/news/2011/mar/07/will-richmonds-campaign-save-low-fares-take-ar-883707/; "Fly AirTran and JetBlue Now or Say Goodbye to Low Fares Fact Sheet," Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, November 2010 http://savelowfares.com/images/downloads/factsheet.pdf (last checked August 15, 2011)
9. "Experts: AirTran loss not insurmountable for airport," Newport News Daily Press, August 7, 2011, http://articles.dailypress.com/2011-08-07/business/dp-nws-cp-airtran-impact-20110807_1_ken-spirito-airtran-departure-airtran-loss; "Traffic Statistics," Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, http://www.flyphf.com/content/index.php/stats.html (last checked August 15, 2011)
10. "UPDATE: Allegiant Air coming to Newport News airport," Newport News Daily Press, August 18, 2011, http://www.dailypress.com/business/dp-nws-new-airline-0818-20110817,0,2370684.story; "Allegiant Air pulling out of Newport News-Williamsburg Airport," WVEC-TV, June 4, 2014, http://www.wvec.com/my-city/nnews/Allegiant-Air-pulling-out-of-Newport-News-Williamsburg-Airport-261803241.html (last checked July 7, 2014)
11. "Allegiant Airlines problems won't affect Newport News airport due to fall hiatus," Daily Press (Newport News), September 25, 2013, http://touch.dailypress.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-77550424/; "People Express airline faces hurdles, seeks federal approval," Daily Press (Newport News), April 2, 2012, http://www.dailypress.com/news/traffic/dp-nws-people-express-certification-20120402,0,418594.story; "PeoplExpress launches with low fares, empty seats," The Virginian-Pilot, July 1, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/node/721200; "Why the new People Express could be an express flop," Washington Business Journal, July 3, 2014, http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/news/news-wire/2014/07/03/why-the-new-people-express-could-be-an-express.html (last checked July 7, 2014)
12. "School of Aeronautics to launch affiliate program in Newport News," Liberty University News Service, December 10, 2013, http://www.liberty.edu/news/index.cfm?PID=18495&MID=107862; "Will It Fly? Students To Try Planning Nn/w Airport," February 17, 1998, http://articles.dailypress.com/1998-02-17/news/9802170025_1_airport-s-master-plan-magnet-program-aviation-academy (last checked December 17, 2013)
13. "Field In Arlington To Be Air Terminal," Washington Post, June 28, 1926, p.1; "Good Riddance to Reagan-National Precursor, Hoover Airport," Washington Post, November 9, 2008 , http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/08/AR2008110802278.html (last checked June 6, 2014)
14. "History of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport," Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, http://www.metwashairports.com/reagan/1277.htm (last checked August 15, 2011)
15. Eugene Scheel, "Dulles Airport Has Its Roots in Rural Black Community of Willard," The History of Loudoun County, Virginia, November, 2002, http://www.loudounhistory.org/history/dulles-airport-history.htm (last checked May 28, 2014)
16. "Reagan National Airport Marks 70 Years of Service to the Washington Community," June 16, 2011 press release by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, http://www.mwaa.com/4011.htm (last checked August 16, 2011)
17. "Frequently Asked Questions, Washington Washington Airports Authority, http://www.metwashairports.com/267.htm; "Senate Joint Resolution No. 220," Virginia General Assembly, March 13, 1998, http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?981+ful+SJ220ER (last checked October 6, 2013)
18. "Lease of Metropolitan Washington Airports," United States Code Sec. 49104, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/USCODE-2011-title49/html/USCODE-2011-title49-subtitleVII-partD-chap491-sec49104.htm (last checked October 6, 2013)
19. "Labor agreement dropped from Dulles rail deal," The Washington Times, June 6, 2012, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/jun/6/mwaa-board-votes-drop-labor-language-phase-2-dulle/ (last checked June 6, 2014)
20. "McDonnell Appointees to MWAA Board Face a Wait," Sun-Gazette, August 13, 2012, http://www.sungazette.net/mclean-greatfalls-vienna-oakton/news/mcdonnell-appointees-to-mwaa-board-face-a-wait/article_cd54063e-e56c-11e1-9df5-0019bb2963f4.html; "MWAA defends inaction on board expansion," Fairfax Times, December 8, 2011, http://www.fairfaxtimes.com/article/20111208/NEWS/712089819&template=fairfaxTimes, "Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority," United States Code Sec. 49106, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/USCODE-2011-title49/html/USCODE-2011-title49-subtitleVII-partD-chap491-sec49106.htm (last checked October 6, 2013)
21. "Roanoke Regional Airport adds Blacksburg to its name," The Roanoke Times, December 18, 2013, http://www.roanoke.com/news/business/2460345-12/roanoke-regional-airport-adds-blacksburg-to-its-name.html (last checked December 18, 2013)
Orville Wright prepares to demonstrate airplane flight to military officers at Fort Myer (1915)
Source: Library of Congress, Wright aeroplane (close view) ready for a flight, Fort Myer, Va.
Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge died in the first fatal airplane crash, after a plane piloted by Orville Wright lost a propeller at Fort Myer (1908)
Source: Library of Congress, Tending to pilot Orville Wright or passenger Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge after the crash of the Wright Military Flyer at Fort Myer, Virginia
after it was clear National Airport could not meet all demands for air travel in the 1950's, the two sites selected for a second Federal airport to serve DC were at Burke and then Willard/Chantilly, replacing Blue Ridge Airport
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Washington 1x2 topographic grid (1948)