Newport News/Williamsburg Airport Offers Gateway To Opportunities

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NEWPORT NEWS—A recent Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce panel event centered around Newport News/Williamsburg Airport (also known as Patrick Henry Field or PHF). The “Eyes on the Future Series: Easy going. The future of the NN/Williamsburg International Airport” lecture included guest panelists that discussed the challenges the airport has faced in recent times, the future of the airport, and the potential it represents as an economic driver for the region.

Created in 1946 with service starting in 1949, the airport has been in business for 72 years. Today, it encompasses more than 2,000 acres of land, more than 2,200 parking spaces, a 180,000-square-foot terminal with 18 gates, corporate and commercial hangars, and 55 general aviation hangars.

“We are a major airport in that regard,” said Jay Joseph, Senior Vice President, General Brokerage, Harvey Lindsay Commercial Real Estate Company and Chairman of the Airport Commission. “We have two commercial service runways. Norfolk only has one. And we have the capacity with our existing facilities to handle more than 1.4 million passengers per year. Our airport has incredible economic impact on the region and state, exceeding $185 million. The message here is that a healthy and busy commercial service airport is critical to growth and prosperity of the region.”

Unfortunately, the airport has not been without its setbacks. In addition to a decline in passengers last year due to covid-19, it lost two air carriers in the last 10 years including AirTran when Southwest purchased the airline and chose to consolidate service to just a few airports. The other was Delta Airlines.

“I actually blame the loss of AirTran on lax antitrust regulations in Washington,” said Joseph. “The loss of Delta was also a federal issue because when they passed the massive Covid Relief Act for airlines, they gave billions of dollars to the airlines to keep them flying, but there was a loophole that said you only needed to keep flying in one airport in each metropolitan area. Delta decided to consolidate services to Norfolk. If you ask Delta today, they will probably tell you that was a mistake, that they’ve lost market share, and they’ve abandoned profitable routes. So, we’re in the process of rebuilding that air service and bringing in new services.”

On a positive note, the airport’s operating revenue is self-sustaining and is poised to stay sustainable for the next 10 years. “That could be something most folks don’t know,” said Michael Giardino, Executive Director, Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport. “I have found that to be true all over the country that people think the government runs the airport. The airport runs the airport. The operating revenue, primarily in an airport this size, usually comes from the parking lot. This airport is a little different in that we get most of our operating revenue from rental cars. We get a lot of that business off the streets, so that’s a very good sign for us. The airlines bring in the business, they certainly do. But the revenue comes from rental cars and the parking lot, and that’s what pays the bills and keeps the lights on.”

On the other hand, airports are in the transportation business, and people wouldn’t come to use the parking lot if they didn’t have someplace to go. To increase revenue opportunities and boost transportation options, two major things that have happened to support the airport recently include a recent announcement by Aery Aviation to expand their operations at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport. Another is a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation that will introduce non-stop service from Newport News to Dulles International (IAD). Another big bonus for the airport is the possible addition of a cargo facility that would take up about four acres, that businesses like Amazon, UPS, and FedEx would use to move cargo.

Since 2016, the airport has spent $38 million on facility improvements to upgrade the safety and security of the facility, and they are planning on spending $40 million more through 2027. Those improvements will include improving rest rooms on the public side, improving jet bridges, upgrading the two luggage carousels, taking care of some exterior roof and window issues on the main terminal, improving and reconfiguring the roads coming into and out of the parking lot, and adding a new revenue control system that will eliminate ticket jams and delays at the parking gate when leaving.

In addition to talking with commercial airline carriers to bring more flights into and out of the airport, marketing efforts are being introduced to bring back the passengers, as well. “We embarked on a new vision mission and marketing campaign about two years ago,” said Giardino. “We want to be your primary choice for air travel, and we know we can play to our strengths, which are: we’re fast, easy, and enjoyable. When we say 15 minutes from curb to gate, we mean it and we can produce that. Our competition cannot. Right now, 91 percent of our customers are choosing other airports. Why? People say it’s cheaper to go elsewhere. We’re asking you to consider that if you book in advance and you consider your time, maybe it’s not cheaper. But our goal is to fill airplanes. When you fill airplanes, you get more seats. When you fill those seats, you get more airplanes. And we’ll continue that process. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.”

From an economic development impact, Senator Monty Mason from Virginia’s First Senate District believes the airport has a good, profitable story to tell. “Just looking at the comprehensive package—the land we’ve got to develop, the businesses we can bring in, and possibly an educational component in getting the Aviation Academy back on site, maybe with a broader, more regional approach,” he said. “The General Assembly doesn’t want to fund brick-and-mortar projects for a single place. They want opportunities for multiple areas, multiple regions, and multiple cities. I think that plays very well into the footprint of this airport.”