by James Heffernan
In the fields outside Weyers Cave in Augusta County, the lowing of cattle occasionally mixes with the droning sound of a twin-engine Cessna or the screech of a jet airliner.
It’s just before 6 a.m., and a steady stream of vehicles files into the parking lot outside the passenger terminal at Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport. Inside, the lines at the ticket counter and baggage check never stretch more than a few persons deep. Security checks proceed seamlessly. In the pane-glass windowed lobby, a businessman works on a laptop in preparation for a late-morning meeting in Northern Virginia while a couple looks forward to their weekend getaway.
As the smallest of Virginia’s nine commercial airports, Shenandoah Valley Regional offers many of the amenities that travelers want and none of the hassles. During the past four years, traffic at the airport has more than doubled, and passenger numbers for the first nine months of 2012 were up about 15 percent from last year, according to Greg Campbell, executive director of the airport commission. “August was probably our best month since before 9/11,” he says.
Although they dwell in the shadow of large metropolitan hubs in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Roanoke, airports in the Shenandoah Valley are earning their wings. According to a 2010 study commissioned by the Virginia Department of Aviation, valley airports contributed more than $50 million to the region’s economy. The study looked at the total number of jobs, payroll and economic activity supported by each facility, including visitors who pass through and the in-state companies that rely on airports to conduct their business.
Shenandoah Valley Regional, for example, accounted for 252 jobs, a payroll of $6.7 million and $26.2 million in economy activity, according to the study. Economic activity at Winchester Regional Airport was estimated at $22.5 million. The general aviation facility supports 168 positions with a combined payroll of around $6 million. Other smaller airports are located near New Market, Luray, Front Royal and Waynesboro.
Each of the airports plays an important role in the region’s economic development. “It’s another tool in the tool belt,” says Patrick Barker, executive director of the Winchester-Frederick County Economic Development Commission. “Clearly for a lot of companies it makes it easier to get their executives in and out, and it’s a far easier transit route than having to fly into a metropolitan airport and drive an hour or more to their destination.”
New airline coming
Campbell attributes much of the recent growth at Shenandoah Valley Regional to collaboration with its partner, United Express. Shenandoah Valley Regional offers three weekday flights and three weekend departures to Dulles International Airport, putting Valley residents within reach of hundreds of domestic and international destinations without having to fight Northern Virginia traffic.
“United has lowered its fares, which has made us much more competitive with other airports,” Campbell says. “They’ve also brought in larger airplanes, and they’ve really done a good job of giving you adequate time to connect at Dulles without having to sit around there for a couple of hours. When that happens, you start weighing your options. But our flights give you just enough time to get to your gate, with a few extra minutes built in, and then you’re on to your next destination pretty quickly.”
In August, Shenandoah Valley Regional brought regional carrier Silver Airways on board to replace Colgan Air, whose parent company had filed for bankruptcy. Silver’s newer-generation Saab 340 jets seat 34 passengers.
Another airline at Shenandoah Valley Regional is on the horizon. Beginning Nov. 20, Frontier Airlines will offer three weekly nonstop flights to Orlando, Fla. “Orlando is one of our top destination spots,” Campbell says. “And there was no low-cost fare service from the Valley-Central Virginia region. We saw an opportunity and so did Frontier.”
The agreement with Frontier Airlines should serve not only area business travelers and families who want to vacation at Walt Disney World, but also Florida residents eyeing Virginia destinations. “We hope to get the reverse traffic — people who live in Florida who, in the middle of the summer, want to get away from the heat or in the winter want to come here to go skiing at Massanutten [Resort],” Campbell says. The airport commission is currently working with Orlando officials on reciprocal tourism packages, he says. “We’ve got a lot of tourist attractions in the Valley. We think it’s going to be quite popular both ways.”
In addition, word has gotten out about Shenandoah Valley Regional’s $2.1 million renovation of its passenger terminal. Parts of the 9,000-square-foot building dated to the early 1960s, Campbell says. With the help of a grant from the Virginia Department of Aviation, the renovation ― completed in April ― updated utilities and mechanical systems, brought restrooms into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and created more space for TSA passenger screenings.
The project also made possible the reorienting of the preflight waiting area to take advantage of postcard views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Increasing corporate travel
Meanwhile, Winchester Regional Airport, which lies outside the federal no-fly zone, has seen an increase in corporate travel since 9/11 as executives opt for the convenience of smaller airports. On an average day, it’s not uncommon for 20 to 25 private aircraft to use the runway, according to airport authority Executive Director Serena “Renny” Manuel. The facility accounts for about 100 daily flight operations, which the state defines as a plane touching down or taking off.
Manuel says local companies such as Valley Proteins, Green Bay Packaging and American Woodmark house planes at Winchester Regional, and corporate executives often fly in from out of town to tour their local operations or to scout potential sites.
Winchester Regional Airport held a grand opening in late September for its newly upgraded 5,500-foot runway, part of $30 million in capital improvements to bring the airport in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration safety and design standards. Manuel says the project is designed to facilitate aircraft currently using the airport and to attract new business and industry to the region.
Manuel doesn’t always know who will be landing at the airport on any given day or why they’re there, but many times the terminal serves as the front door to the community.
When Green Bay Packaging officials visited Winchester as a possible site for a new production facility, “they felt like, with the reception that they received, this would be a good place for them to do business,” she says. Later, when the company announced that it was going to build a plant in Frederick County, officials held a news conference at the airport. “For them, it was a deciding factor.”
Manuel also cites Kohl’s distribution center near the airport and several of the larger facilities along the U.S. 522 corridor between Winchester and Front Royal as examples of companies for which the airport was a selling point.
Similarly, Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport has helped fuel economic development in the central valley. “Having an airport in close proximity to our industrial businesses and being able to make those connections is definitely part of the package,” says Linda Hershey, president and CEO of the Greater Augusta Chamber of Commerce.
McKee Foods’ decision to expand its operations in Stuarts Draft and Cadence Inc.’s 25,000-square-foot expansion in Staunton are recent examples of the airport’s influence. “They both really looked hard at accessibility,” Hershey says. “Greg [Campbell] and his staff are so community-minded. They look at the needs of the different companies that utilize the airport, and they’re willing to make accommodations.”
“We’ve tried to stay active in all areas of economic development,” said Campbell, who sits on the board of directors of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership. “We want to make sure that the facilities are up to par and that everything that happens once that airplane hits the ground is professional and efficient. We see that as our primary role.”
Room for growth
Regional airports derive most of their revenue from selling fuel, renting hangars and leasing space to corporate clients.
Shenandoah Valley Regional primarily serves residents of Augusta and Rockingham counties and the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro, though Campbell says the airport’s customer base is beginning to reach into Shenandoah and Rockbridge counties as well. The growth of colleges and universities in the region, including James Madison University, Mary Baldwin College, Bridgewater College, Virginia Military Institute and Washington & Lee University, also offer opportunities to further expand that base.
The airport is poised to add more airlines in the future, Campbell says. Its 6,000-foot runway is more than adequate to handle many of the larger planes, like Frontier’s 138-seat A319 airbus. “We’re not really limited on runway length for the kinds of carriers we’re targeting,” he said. The airport is adding about 150 parking spaces outside the terminal, bringing the total to 350.
“There’s still a lot of [passenger] traffic out there that’s leaking out elsewhere,” Campbell said. “With the addition of Frontier, hopefully we’ll be able to at least sustain our current level of growth and maybe take it to another level.”
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