Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport was originally called Patrick Henry Field, and still uses PHF as its Location ID
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) was built after World War Two on the site of the US Army's Camp Patrick Henry, the embarkation port for soldiers sent to North Africa, Europe, and New Guinea. One of the 296 Nike surface-to-air missile sites in the continental United States was located there in the 1950's, and the remaining military housing at the site was not closed until the 1988 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.1
Camp Patrick Henry was converted after World War II into Patrick Henry Field, now Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF)
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Richmond VA 1:250,000 topographic quadrangle (1949)
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." The airport code of PHF is based on the original name of "Patrick Henry Field." The "International" was dropped in 2022 from the airport's marketing in order to shorten the name, but the official name was not revised.
Efforts to get the city of Hampton to help finance a new $14 million 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 (PHF), 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, but the jurisdictions do contribute funds for marketing the airport and attracting airlines.2
To get commercial passenger airlines to fly routes from Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF), the Peninsula Airport Commission has to demonstrate there is a sufficient demand to fill seats. To recruit customers, the airport has to offer flights that are more convenient and/or less expensive than flights from nearby airports. That is especially challenging because the "capture area" for customers overlaps with the capture areas for both Norfolk International Airport (ORF) and Richmond International Airport (RIC).
Airlines have exercised their option of cancelling service from Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) when the routes did not generate sufficient profits. In 2012, Southwest merged with AirTran and pulled out of the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport. The low-cost airline chose to consolidate at the Richmond and Norfolk airports, and business at Newport News dropped by 50%. The Peninsula Airport Authority attracted two other low-cost airlines to replace AirTran, but neither maintained operations for long.
adjusted for inflation, average air fares at Virginia airports all dropped between 1995-2015 except for Newport News-Williamsburg
Source: US Department of Transportation - Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Average Domestic Airline Itinerary Fares By Origin City
Allegiant Airlines withdrew after servicing the airport for less than a year, when PeoplExpress announced its plans to fly from Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport. PeoplExpress survived less than three months, and the Peninsula Airport Authority had guaranteed a loan to attract the airline, and had to pay $4.5 million to TowneBank after PeoplExpress failed.
In 2017, the Peninsula Airport Authority managed to attract a third low-cost carrier, Elite Airways. The airport's business strategy remained focused on increasing traffic by attracting and retaining a low-cost carrier, while Richmond and Norfolk focused on increasing travel on existing airlines servicing those airports. Elite did not commit to start its twice-weekly flights to Myrtle Beach until April, 2018.3
Elite Airways finally cancelled its plans before starting service. The Regional Air Service Enhancement Committee had paid Elite $400,000 from funds that had been contributed by Hampton, James City County, York County, Gloucester, Williamsburg and Poquoson before the PeoplExpress debacle.
None of that funding was recovered after Elite failed to start flying from Newport News. The airport had not included any "clawback" provision to recover the payment if Elite did not start operations. The airline was legally authorized to pocket the $400,000 incentive and do nothing in return.4
In May, 2018, the new Executive Director at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport switched strategies. He refocused away from efforts to attract a new low cost competitor, and announced plans to encourage American and Delta to expand their existing flights and provide service to new destinations.
The Executive Director also started to recruit United to start operations, in hopes of getting service by three of the "big four" carriers. The fourth, Southwest, would not be a targeted company for recruitment, since that company had made its choice clear when it abandoned Newport News after purchasing AirTran.
The airport's new sales pitch in 2019 highlighted the opportunity to capture the 4,000 residents on the Peninsula who drove every day to catch a flight at another airport, a loss described as "leakage." Potential new carriers included the smaller airlines that contracted with American, Delta, and United to offer connecting services to the larger hub airports. The potential for Elite to offer a Newport News-New York flight were not expected to become reality, since the New York airports were saturated with services from low-cost carriers.5
natural light illuminates the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) terminal
The Peninsula Airport Authority has tried to increase income at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport by increasing profits from terminal operations, and by attracting business other than scheduled airline flights.
About 25% of the airport's revenue come from its parking operations. It also leased land to Kentucky Farms, a private company that managed horse pasture on land not needed for airport operations but not suitable for other buildings. In 2017, the airport took direct control over the food and beverage operations in the terminal, a move which triggered a lawsuit by the lease holder that exposed the PeoplExpress scandal.
In 2019, it took over responsibility for the Patrick Henry Mobile Home Village on airport property. The management had been outsourced, but direct control was expected to increase profits substantially. The airport had been maintaining the trailer park's infrastructure, including streets and water/sewer lines, but accepted responsibility for tenant relations and rent collection when no local company responded to a request for proposals.
In concept, assuming all trailer park responsibilities was just an extension of the airport's other landlord-tenant relationships. The Executive Director commented:6
The 75-acre mobile home park had developed in the 1950's, when housing was scarce during the post World War II baby boom. Residents owned their trailers, but paid a monthly lot fee. That covered the rent for use of the land, plus water and trash collection. At the end of the 1990's, the airport stopped authorizing new renters. The number of mobile homes gradually declined from 250 trailers in 1995 to 77 trailers in 2022, when the airport's Executive Director notified all residents that the facility would close and everyone had to remove their trailers.
The closure notice reflected the Executive Director's judgment that the mobile home park was not generating a profit for the airport. More importantly, maintaining the mobile home park would require investing millions of dollars in facility upgrades for sewage and water pipes, stormwater management, and roads at a time when the airport had no surplus cash. Continuing the mobile home park would not be cost-effective, and was not part of the master plan of the airport that would qualify for a Federal Aviation Administration grant.
There were no plans for a different use of the site where the Patrick Henry Mobile Home Village was located. It might one day be part of the safety zone if a third runway was ever constructed. However, based on the low number of flights by commercial carriers at the airport, that expansion was not imminent.
Closing the park reduced the supply of affordable housing in Newport News, and created a burden on the residents. The airport offered a $2,000 incentive payment for people who left by the end of May, 2022, but moving a mobile home could cost up to $10,000. As he deadline to move approached in early November, 66 of the original 77 trailers were still on the site and 15 were still occupied. The 17 tenants who had hired an attorney to press for greater compensation had ended up without a better deal.
The chair of the Peninsula Airport Commission said:7
the Executive Director at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport notified residents of the Patrick Henry Mobile Home Village in 2022 that they had to move
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Denbigh High School's Aviation Academy has offered classes for high school students at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport since 1995, training pilots, mechanics, and other aviation specialists.
In 2013, Liberty University expanded its School of Aviation to offer flight training at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport to college students getting online bachelor's degrees. It was chosen as Liberty University's first training airport outside of the school's base at Lynchburg Regional Airport in part because it was located within 50 miles of eight military bases. Plans were announced in 2014 to upgrade the Aviation Academy into a Center of Aeronautics, and to build a new $30 million facility to replace the 1950s terminal.
Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport attracted Liberty University's aviation training program because it was close to military airports
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
However, in 2016 Liberty decided to close its flight school at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport. After staffing the program at Newport News/Williamsburg, Liberty determined that its preferred business model was to offer online education and to partner with flight schools offering hands-on experience at different airports. The university arranged for partners at 50 locations across the country, and while closing down at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport the university maintained its operations in Virginia at Leesburg, Manassas, Stafford, Warrenton, Chesapeake, and of course Lynchburg.8
The proposal to upgrade the Aviation Academy into a Center of Aeronautics was frozen during the PeoplExpress debacle. In 2018, the Newport News Public Schools had a new superintendent and Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport had a new executive director. They proposed a $22 million investment to create the Virginia Center of Aeronautics for Denbigh High students.
Classes would move from the airport's old terminal building to a new structure, with a new hangar and outdoor learning area. Among other benefits, the shift to new buildings would avoid the costs to rehabilitate the air conditioning system and install a new roof at the old terminal.9
Liberty University expanded its flight training program nationwide, but operated at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport for only three years (2014-2016)
Source: Liberty University, Flight Training Affiliate Program
In 2015, Newport News also sought to generate additional revenue from the airport by lowering the property tax rate for private planes by 75%, from $2.10 to $0.50 per $100 of assessed value. At the time, 114 planes were based at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport and generating property taxes for Newport News. Across the James River in Chesapeake and Suffolk, there were 307 private planes being taxed at only $0.58 per $100 of assessed value.
Few of the planes in Chesapeake and Suffolk were associated with any business in those communities south of the river. Newport News officials anticipated that the owners would be willing to base their property at a different airport nearby, if offered an even lower tax rate.
The proposed tax reduction was initially rejected by the city council, in part because it was seen as a benefit for those wealthy enough to own a plane while low-income residents in Newport News received no equivalent reduction. The 75% property tax reduction was approved after getting a commitment from a business to build two new hangars at the airport once taxes were lowered.
The city anticipated that the immediate loss of $200,000 in revenue would be offset by additional planes moving to Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, plus economic development projects associated with businesses who wanted easy airport access.10
In 2018, local construction company W.M. Jordan signed a 15-year lease (with options to extend 10 more years) to build a new hanger and keep its two company jets at the airport. The newest jet had been kept temporarily in a hangar at the Richmond airport, but the construction company was owned by a Newport News native. He made clear that he wanted to support his local airport, as well as base the jet closer to the company headquarters in Newport News:11
aeronautical chart for area including Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF)
The Peninsula Airport Commission, officially the owner of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, generated $8 million in one-time revenue in 2016 by selling 248 acres to the York County Economic Development Authority for a business park. The airport sold land that it did not need for expanding runways or adding other facilities.
By assembling property in advance, the authority expected to increase the potential of attracting new companies. The tax-exempt airport land could end up generating commercial tax revenue for York County, if sold to a private company at some point, and new businesses near the airport would generate local jobs.12
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic dramatically reduced air travel. The US Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act authorizing $25 billion in payments to passenger air carriers, but they were required to maintain for a year some level of scheduled air transportation service to "any point" served at the end of February, 2020 (with adjusted dates for winter/summer seasonal service).
When defining the skeleton air transport network to be maintained, the US Department of Transportation determined that Hampton Roads was one "point" that included both the Peninsula and the cities south of the James River. The Federal government's final order required six airlines to continue to service Norfolk International Airport (ORF), but did not require the two commercial carriers at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) to maintain any flights to/from that destination.
Alarmed officials on the Peninsula feared Delta Air Lines and American Airlines would consolidate their service to Hampton Roads in Norfolk, and cancel all flights to the Newport News/Williamsburg airport. The two airports were only 30 miles apart by car, but as the chair of the York County Board of Supervisors noted:13
On April 21, 2020, only eight passengers flew out of the airport. A Federal stimulus package provided a $4.1 million grant, equal to half the annual budget, but the Executive Director calculated that airline travel and associated revenues would be slow to recover from the pandemic. To stretch out the time the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) could survive using the Federal grant, he cut the budget by 1/3, laid off 40% of the employees (mostly part-time), and told the Peninsula Airport Commission:14
Delta stopped flying to Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) on May 13, suspending service until at least September. Delta used to fly three times each day to Atlanta, but was down to one daily flight. The airline chose to maintain operations at the Norfolk and Richmond airports. The number of passengers at Norfolk dropped 95% in April, 2020, the same percentage as the Transportation Security Administration reported across the United States.
In response to the reduced activity, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reduced the operating hours for staffing the airport's tower with air traffic controllers, as it reduced staffing at about 100 other airports with a significant reduction in flights. Of the six remaining American Airlines flights each day, four were scheduled to take off or land when the tower would be unstaffed.
That was irrelevant to safe operations at the airport; the controllers in the tower at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) handled traffic flying between airports. The Federal Aviation Administration still kept staff at the approach control center, located at the Norfolk International Airport (ORF), which ensured safe operations during takeoffs and landings of scheduled passenger aircraft around Hampton Roads.15
the one remaining flight to Atlanta on May 11, 2020 was completely booked before service ended on May 13
for flights after May 12, Delta directed customers seeking flights from Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) to nearby airports
The steep drop in customers after March, 2020 exacerbated the usual crush of passengers at Christmas. Demand surges annually at the holiday because the military bases near Newport News authorize more leave, letting more military personnel be with their families. Christmas is the major peak in recreational travel at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF), where normally 70% of the passengers are on business trips.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused Delta to eliminate its three daily flights to Atlanta and stop operating completely at the airport. American eliminated its three flights to Philadelphia, and reduced its seven daily flights to Charlotte down to about three. Special buses bring waves of customers to the airport, some as early as 1:00am. The airport plans each year to open extra space for passengers waiting for their flights, and anticipated an extra crush in 2020 since the number of flights was so low.16
American Airlines restarted its flights later in 2020 to Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT), and to Philadelphia in June, 2021. American Airlines had a monopoly; Delta had not returned to Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) at that time.17
American Airlines restarted operations in 2020 and had a monopoly at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF), flying first to just Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT)
Source: Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF)
American Airlines prices were based on competition from other airports, since it offered the only service to Charlotte
Source: American Airlines, Choose Flights
The policy shift to recruit large domestic carriers rather than more discount lines paid off in 2021. The airport worked with United Airlines to obtain an $850,000 grant from the Small Community Air Service Development Program of the US Department of Transportation, the same program that provided the grant used to attract PeoplExpress. United planned to offer twice daily service, with 50-seat planes, to Dulles International Airport (IAD).
The airport had to demonstrate local support to win the grant, and local governments committed $600,000. In addition, Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) committed $150,000 for marketing and agreed to waive $400,000 in fees, ensuring the United Airlines would not lose money in the first years of service. Airport marketing to attract customers began to emphasize "easy going," based on the reduced amount of time for Peninsula residents to fly from Newport News rather than fight traffic on I-64 to Richmond or through bridge-tunnels to Norfolk.18
the easier drive to Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) was the advantage highlighted in 2021
Source: Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF)
In 2021, Aery Aviation announced plans to expand is operations at the airport. The company, started in 2016, modifies aircraft for government and commercial customers and gets the planes certified for use. The $15 million expansion was projected to create over 200 new jobs in Newport News.19
The airport did manage to recruit a new start-up, Avelo Airlines, in 2022. The airline announced plans to fly from Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.
Avelo Airline started flying from Newport News in October, 2022. It had to compete for Hampton Roads customers with another discount carrier, Breeze Airways, which had chosen in 2021 to start flights to Florida from Norfolk International Airport (ORF).20
Recruiting Avelo Airlines and increasing traffic by 225,000 passengers per year was not sufficient to save the job of the airport director, who had been hired in October 2017 after the PeoplExpress debacle. He was fired on February 13, 2023.
there was only one departure from the airport on Valentines Day in 2023
Source: Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF), Arrivals and Departures
The number of flights from the airport was inadequate to generate revenue sufficient to pay the bills; in the last fiscal year, the deficit was $2.6 million. Only 166,000 passengers flew out of the airport in 2022 compared to a million passengers in 2012. The $847,646 grant from the Small Community Air Service Development Program, awarded in 2021, had not resulted in a United Airlines flight to Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Delta never restarted service after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The chair of the Peninsula Airport Commission said after firing the airport director:21
A week later, Avelo Airlines announced it was ending service at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF). The airport had cash reserves to operate at the current annual deficit only until 2025. Despite receiving a Small Community Air Service Development Program grant to subsidize service by a new airline, Spirit Airlines chose to start service at the competing Norfolk International Airport (ORF) in 2023 and he grant funding remained unused.
In contrast to the 166,000 passengers at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) in 2022, four million passengers used Norfolk International Airport (ORF). In 2023, with the addition of Spirit Airlines, Norfolk had eight carriers providing commercial air service.
A member of the Peninsula Airport Commission thought that better marketing, especially to local businesses and colleges, could revive business at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF):22
An economist at Old Dominion University concluded that the airport had a different problem. There was a fundamental disconnect between supply and demand for commercial passenger airports in Hampton Roads. The solution may be to reduce supply rather than rely upon better marketing to increase demand:23
One possibility was for Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) to abandon commercial passenger service and serve just corporate and general aviation customers. That shift had already been done at New River Valley Airport (PSK), Hot Springs/Ingalls Field (HSP), Danville Regional Airport (DAN), and Lonesome Pine Regional Airport (LPR).
Danville was the last Virginia city to lose commercial air service. It ended in 1995 after competition with airports in Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Raleigh-Durham was unsuccessful. In 1999, commercial passenger service also ended at Smith Reynolds Airport (INT) in Winston-Salem, reflecting the competitive environment of the airport business.24
In 2023, the airport received $1.35 million in Federal funding to update the Airport Master Plan. That gave officials an opprtunity to define how it could retain American Airlines and perhaps attract other carriers in order to perpetuate commercial passenger service. The assumption was that the decline from 1 million travelers in 2012 to 166,000 in 2022 could be reversed, somehow.25
Avelo Airlines announced plans in 2022 to fly from Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) to destinations in Florida
Source: Avelo Airlines, Destinations
Avelo Airlines flights to/from Florida were intermittent, based upon peak demand periods
Source: Avelo Airlines, Low Fare Calendar
in 2018, parking fees at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) garage were $10/day maximum
an escalator leads up to the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) terminal