there are General Aviation airports in Southwestern Virginia soth 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||
Source: Stafford Regional Airport
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
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. Danville had commercial air service connections to Charlotte and Winston-Salem until 1995, but today Danville Regional Airport is just a general aviation airport.3
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
Nine airports in Virginia have scheduled commercial passenger service:
Reagan National Airport (DCA)
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
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.6
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.7
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. The Newport News/Williamsburg airport is 60 miles east of the Richmond airport and 30 miles north of the Norfolk airport, and local officials are focused on economic development of their separate jurisdictions in three separate areas.
Economically, the I-64 corridor from Richmond to Norfolk might benefit if travel was concentrated at just two airports. Politically, however, there is no advantage for officials on the Peninsula to close the Newport News/Williamsburg airport in order to encourage more airlines to establish hubs in Richmond and Norfolk. Newport News would suffer economically in the long run if lacked scheduled airline services, even the limited connections to other cities that airlines will provide in such a fragmented market.
Passenger traffic at the Norfolk International Airport peaked in 2005 and then dropped 20% between 2005-2013. In 2014, the number of travelers dropped below 3 million, the lowest use of the airport since 2001.
The airport authority still proposed building a second runway for $300 million. The original justification for the expansion was to accomodate increasing demand; the new justification was to provide redundancy. The mayor of Virginia Beach advocated expansion based on the "build it and they will come" assumption, hoping new runway capacity would increase the number of flights and get an airline to go from Norfolk to Europe.8
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...).9
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:10
In 2011, AirTran was the dominant carrier at the Newport News airport, carrying almost 50% of all passengers, and the impact of the decision to pull out 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:11
Airport officials managed to attract two low-cost airlines between 2012-2014, but failed to retain them - and lost Frontier.
Even before AirTran shut down operations in 2012, Allegiant Air announced plans to start flying between Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport and Orlando. Allegiant Air had a business model to operate seasonally, with no flights to Orlando between mid-August and mid-October. It served price-conscious vacation customers, rather than business travelers.
Allegiant Air cancelled operations in 2014 after PeoplExpress, a competing low-cost airline, claimed it would offer all-year service from Newport News/Williamsburg. Allegiant moved its operations to the Richmond airport to fly to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area (rather than Orlando).12
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. Frontier's service between Labor Day and May 1 was funded in part by a $500,000 annual subsidy from the Regional Air Service Enhancement Committee, which obtained its economic development funding from the jurisdictions of Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg, Gloucester, York and James City. Flights to Denver were profitable, but at the end of 2014 Frontier announced it would stop servicing Newport News/Williamsburg due to the carrier's shift to become an ultra-low cost airline.
PeoplExpress planned to use over $1.5 million in federal and regional grants (incuding $700,000 raised from the cities of Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg, Poquoson and the counties of Gloucester, James City, and York) to help finance the first year of service. Norfolk International Airport had tried to recruit PeoplExpress in 2011, but declined to provide the same level of incentives.13
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.
Three months after starting, PeoplExpress announced it was suspending operations for three weeks. Both of its two leased Boeing 737's were unavailable - one was damaged by a truck while on the ground at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, and the other had separate maintenance issues.
After the airline failed to renew operations within 30 days, the airport commission demanded that PeoplExpress vacate the terminal and turn over $96,000 in airport fees collected from passengers. In January 2015, the airport evicted PeoplExpress from its office at the airport. The airline was not suppose to pay rent, but it was evicted for failure to pay its bills for utilities and trash service. None of the local funds raised to subsidize PeoplExpress were transferred to the company during its short life at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, and the airport operated at a profit despite the loss of the carrier.14
The Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport also has a role in 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 college students getting online bachelor's degrees. The Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport 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. Plans to upgrade the Aviation Academy into a Center of Aeronautics, and to build a new $30 million facility to replace the 1950s terminal, were announced in 2014.15
even into January 2015, PeoplExpress advertised flights based out of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport
Source: ESRI, PEOPLExpress
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)
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/ (last checked August 21, 2014)
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)
6. "Capital Region Airport Commission," Richmond International Airport, http://www.flyrichmond.com/index.php/about-us/capital-region-airport-commission (last checked October 5, 2013)
7. "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)
8. "Airport seeks 2nd runway despite fewer passengers," The Virginian-Pilot, April 5, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/node/712284; "Norfolk airport sees smallest number of travelers in a decade," The Virginian-Pilot, January 22, 2015, http://hamptonroads.com/2015/01/norfolk-airport-sees-smallest-number-travelers-decade (last checked February 23, 2015)
9. "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)
10. "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)
11. "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)
12. "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; "Allegiant Air to start Richmond-St.Petersburg, Fla., service in February," Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 12, 2014, http://www.timesdispatch.com/business/local/allegiant-air-to-start-richmond-st-petersburg-fla-service-in/article_588f565b-d193-54a2-94aa-6aaefde7a5b0.html (last checked November 12, 2014)
13. "PeoplExpress flies for $1.65M," Inside Business – The Hampton Roads Business Journal, September 19, 2014, http://insidebiz.com/node/416301; "Frontier to drop service to Newport News-Williamsburg airport," The Virginia-Gazette, November 24, 2014, http://www.vagazette.com/dp-nws-frontier-20141124,0,5807026.story; "RAISE Funds for the Newport News Williamsburg Airport," Williamsburg Economic Development Authority, September 9, 2009, https://www.williamsburgva.gov/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=3491 (last checked November 24, 2014)
14. "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; "PeoplExpress suspends service, to relaunch Oct. 16," The Virginian-Pilot, September 27, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/node/730182; "People Express told to leave Newport News/Williamsburg airport terminal," Daily Press (Newport News), November 10, 2014, http://www.dailypress.com/news/newport-news/dp-nws-people-express-20141110-36-story.html; "Newport News airport evicts People Express," Daily Press (Newport News), January 22, 2015, http://www.dailypress.com/business/dp-airlines-newport-news-airport-evicting-people-express-20150122-story.html; "Newport News/Williamsburg airport: People Express a financial wash for airport," Daily Press (Newport News), March 27, 2015, http://www.dailypress.com/business/tidewater/dp-newport-newswilliamsburg-airport-people-express-a-financial-wash-for-airport-20150326-story.html (last checked March 26, 2015)
15. "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," Daily Press (Newport News), February 17, 1998, http://articles.dailypress.com/1998-02-17/news/9802170025_1_airport-s-master-plan-magnet-program-aviation-academy; "Newport News airport executive director pitches new Center of Aeronautics," Daily Press (Newport News), September 29, 2014, http://www.dailypress.com/news/education/dp-nws-nn-aviation-academy-renovation-20140929,0,1236034.story (last checked September 29, 2014)