Norfolk airport sees banner year
Norfolk International Airport is on track to have the best year since its 1938 opening. In June, the airport reported a 7.5% increase in passenger activity, with 431,637 passengers — up from last June’s figure of 401,517, marking the largest number of June passengers in the airport’s history.
During the first six months of 2023, the airport’s passenger count increased 8.7% to 2,083,371 passengers, compared with 1,915,866 for the same period in 2022.
One contributing factor is Norfolk International’s ability to grow its number of airlines and flights. “It has eight airlines, so customers have lots of options,” says Vinod Agarwal, deputy director of the Dragas Center for Economic Analysis at Old Dominion University.
Airlines serving the Norfolk airport include Allegiant, American, Breeze, Delta, Frontier, Southwest, Spirit, United and their regional airline partners. The airport began adding low-cost carriers in 2017, starting with Allegiant, followed by Frontier in 2018, Breeze in 2021 and Spirit in 2023.
In 2021, Breeze airlines selected Norfolk as a crew base for pilots and flight crews. Passengers can fly to 16 cities nonstop on Breeze from Norfolk, including the addition of Fort Myers, Florida, in July.
“We currently have 41 locations we can now fly nonstop,” says Norfolk International Airport President and CEO Mark Perryman. “We are continuing to grow that number and move up.”
The addition of Spirit Airlines in March, with flights to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, was another boost to passenger count.
“They are a growth-stimulator type of airline, and they are doing that. Spirit went from 0% in March to now serving 3% to 4% of our total traffic. There is huge growth in low-cost carriers,” Perryman says. “We are talking with other airlines all the time. We have two other airlines that are extremely interested,” but Perryman declined to name them.
The airport’s positive growth hasn’t gone unnoticed. This year, it received a 4-Star Regional Airport rating from London-based Skytrax. The annual ratings, which go up to five stars, are a global benchmark of airport standards.
Of the 572 airports rated in the 2023 survey, Norfolk International was one of only seven U.S. 4-Star airports, a group that includes the Cincinnati, Houston, Indianapolis, New York (LaGuardia), Portland and Seattle airports. Skytrax also ranked NIA sixth place among the World’s Best Domestic Airports.
To keep its standards steady, Norfolk International is undertaking a $30 million runway rehabilitation project to repair aging asphalt and concrete portions of two runways. The work is being performed in two $15 million phases, with phase one’s completion expected in November and phase two anticipated to be completed in November 2024.
In August, the airport released a request for proposals for a construction manager for a concourse gate expansion and a customs and border control facility, aimed at helping NIA attract international flights. The project is currently in the conceptual design phase.
In May, the airport issued a request for proposals for development of a new hotel on airport property. Perryman was set to provide the airport’s board with a recommended developer in September, after this publication’s deadline.
Like Norfolk, many U.S. airports are beginning to see some of the largest increases in air traffic since the start of the pandemic, a sign of a pent-up consumer demand for recreational travel.
“We are predominantly domestic, and our numbers rebounded faster than some others in the country. The big international airports with flights internationally are still struggling,” Perryman says. “Anecdotally, I think the pandemic opened people’s eyes to what the Hampton Roads region has to offer, but we don’t have hard evidence.”
Regionally, though, the story is different at the Newport News-Williamsburg Airport, which has a single airline — American Airlines, which serves only flights to Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2018, Newport News recorded 403,575 total passengers. In 2022, that number fell to 129,971. In February, the airport’s board dismissed airport Executive Director Mike Giardino. Avelo Airlines ended service at the airport in April, less than a year after it began offering flights from Newport News to Florida. In 2022, Delta left the airport.
“In the last 10 years or so, Newport News has seen a decline in its number of airlines. Supply and demand factors indicate the airport is having a tough time coming back to where it used to be,” says Agarwal. “If it flew to other places, it would attract more people.”
This summer, the Hampton Roads Alliance received a $100,000 GO Virginia grant to conduct a regional air transportation study, which will focus on both regional airports and include $50,000 in funding from Norfolk, Newport News, the Norfolk Airport Authority and the Peninsula Airport Commission.
The Peninsula Airport Commission’s members declined to discuss plans for Newport News’ airport until after the study is completed in early 2024.