- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2000

The urban sprawl that is turning metropolitan Washington into an expanse of edge cities is fueling a business boom among regional airports.

At many regional airports within 60 miles of Washington, runways are being extended, upgraded equipment installed and air traffic is at all-time highs. Instead of coming in single-engine Piper Cubs, more often corporate fliers are landing in Gulfstream IV jets and triple-engine Falcon 900s.

The Washington area is host to three of the nation's fastest growing major airports: Dulles International Airport, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Dulles and BWI rank No. 1 and 2 as the fastest-growing airports in the nation, largely because of Washington's growing status as an economic powerhouse.

Despite airport administrators' best efforts to keep pace with increased air traffic, the skies are often crowded over the nation's capital.

The major airports' congestion problem is proving to be the regional airports' gain. At airports once used almost exclusively by small private aircraft, corporate planes and their air-support services are finding a home.

The aviation and business communities say regional airports are great for local economies. Urban planners say the airports are part of the sprawl that is pushing the Washington area into a metropolis that could gobble up edge cities, such as Manassas and Leesburg. Residents near the regional airports complain about the noise.

"It is not too dissimilar to a lot of the shopping centers that are happening in suburbs," said Jim Hughes, operations planning director for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

In much the same way the Tysons Corner shopping mall created its own urban center, regional airports are drawing business away from downtown Washington, he said.

"It is part of urban sprawl," Mr. Hughes said. "They are becoming mini-generators themselves in terms of jobs and activity."

Mr. Hughes is familiar with the growth of suburbs because his job includes trying to plan transit service for areas surrounding downtown. The growth of regional airports adds to the difficulty of serving suburban commuters, he said.

"They pull their employees from all over and it's a difficult market to serve," he said.

Congestion relief

Despite concerns about urban sprawl, administrators of the 35 public airports in Maryland and 67 in Virginia say they are pumping new revenue and vitality into their local economies while providing a needed alternative to the major airports.

The Maryland Aviation Administration this year estimated that the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg creates $14.9 million annually in revenue for the local economy.

"That's not only based on the 100 employees here and their salaries and the taxes the airport pays, but also our use of goods and services in the community, everything from paper clips to a $2 million repaving project," said Doug McNeeley, manager of the Montgomery County Airpark.

Washington is hardly unique. Regional airports are growing around major cities nationwide. Small airports in Westchester County, N.Y., and northern New Jersey are benefiting from congestion at LaGuardia Airport in Manhattan that now delays flights by an average of 43 minutes. Kennedy International Airport and Newark International Airport also are operating near capacity.

More encouragement for small airport growth comes from Congress, where some members see airports as the equivalent of a new highway system. In the past five years, Congress has doubled spending for new airports. In the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, Congress appropriated $3.2 billion for airport development. Last year, it spent $1.95 billion.

"That's going to put more money into all sectors of airport development, the big ones and the small ones," said Terry Page, manager of the FAA's Washington Airports District Office. Mr. Page oversees FAA grants to airports in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Cash infusion

Twenty percent of the money Congress appropriated for airports is set aside exclusively for the regional and small public airports. If they can demonstrate a public benefit from their projects, they can qualify for even more funding.

The 20 percent set-aside will mean at least $11 million for regional airports in Virginia this year, $6 million for Maryland's small airports and $500,000 for District officials to help them plan transportation routes and access to airports.

Mr. Page said he expects the figure to grow significantly this year, particularly for airports the FAA has designates as "relievers." Relievers refer to regional airports that can divert congestion away from major airports. In the Washington area, they include Manassas Regional Airport, Leesburg Municipal Airport and Montgomery County Airpark. They qualify for special consideration when applying for federal discretionary funding.

Another reliever airport is being built in Stafford County, Va. Federal, state and local funds are paying for a $38 million, single-runway regional airport that will be owned by the county. It is scheduled to begin operating next year.

John White, spokesman for the Maryland Aviation Administration, disputed whether regional airports add to urban sprawl. Maryland transportation officials are trying to use BWI as the hub of an aviation network that includes sharing air traffic with regional airports.

"Airports are economic engines no matter where they are," Mr. White said. "They complement the downtown areas because they provide better accessibility."

Other benefits result from the community service created by the regional airports, which cannot always be put into a financial calculation, supporters of the airports say. At Montgomery County Airpark, for example, the community services include AirLifeLine, a volunteer air service for organ transplant and other medical patients; the U.S. Coast Guard's environmental patrol of the Chesapeake Bay and the Montgomery County Department of Transportation's air-based traffic patrol. The county transportation department uses a Cessna Skymaster to radio information about traffic bottlenecks to the Montgomery County Transportation Management Center.

Noise overhead

The public benefits of airports can mean little to residents who must put up with airplane engine noise. In recent years, their complaints have increased as the airplanes landing and taking off get bigger and come with greater frequency. Property owners worry that the noise can be more than a nuisance, perhaps driving down real-estate values.

"Now we're into commuter jets, which we didn't have when we first moved into the village," said Anne Swain, a resident of the Montgomery Village residential subdivision in Gaithersburg. She and her husband moved into Montgomery Village in 1971, when small private airplanes were the only customers of nearby Montgomery Airpark.

"At night sometimes they come in quite late," Mrs. Swain said. "Naturally they fly overhead and you hear that. Sometimes it's worse than others."

Mrs. Swain and other Montgomery Village residents are members of a committee, called the Airpark Liaison Committee, that monitors noise and safety problems at the airport. It meets four or five times a year with Mr. McNeeley, a Federal Aviation Administration representative and pilots who use the air park.

The committee meets in the county office building in Rockville to voice their concerns to Mr. McNeeley and the FAA when a noise or safety problem arises. Mrs. Swain described the meetings as sometimes tense but usually cordial.

The FAA's Mr. Page said bigger airplanes at the regional airports are an inevitable result of air congestion at the major airports. As a result, the regional airports must expand to accommodate them.

Some of the corporate jets or even triple-engine propeller airplanes require longer runways and more sophisticated maintenance equipment than small aircraft.

At the area's major airports, Mr. Page said, "Certain times of day you can be number 10 in line for takeoff. You can get into Manassas or Leesburg a lot faster. You can just zip right in." Landing fees also are cheaper at the smaller airports.

One of the fastest growing relievers is Manassas Regional Airport. Bruce Lawson, the airport's director, said he expected takeoffs and landings to reach 135,000 this year. In 1998, the airport had 129,700 "operations," or takeoffs and landings. The airport's longer of two runways was closed for six months last year for repaving and renovation. The project cost $3.8 million, which was 90 percent federally funded, 8 percent state funded and 2 percent funded by the airport's owner, the city of Manassas.

Despite the cost, Mr. Lawson said the surrounding community reaped the biggest benefit.

"Every dollar spent turns over 2.8 times in the community," Mr. Lawson said. Construction companies profit from repaving runways and building or rehabbing hangars. Nearby hotels and restaurants get revenue from travelers who land at the airport.

Among Manassas Regional Airport's regular customers is freight carrier Colgan Air as well as training and maintenance facilities for regional passenger carrier U.S. Air Express.

The biggest airplane ever landed at Manassas Regional Airport was a DC-9 owned by the U.S. government, Mr. Lawson said. Among the passengers who walked off the plane was first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Another DC-9 landed months later, Mr. Lawson said. That time the passengers consisted of President Clinton and his entourage of aides and Secret Service agents.

Bigger runways

Mr. Lawson said airport officials might qualify soon for federal funding to lengthen their longest runway from 5,700 feet to 6,700 feet. At that length, nearly any commercial aircraft could land at the airport. The second runway, which would not be lengthened, is 3,700 feet long.

Mr. Lawson has occasionally run into opposition from homeowners over the airport's expansion plans.

"Everybody who lives near an airport feels that increased traffic and the operations numbers of an airport will decrease their property values," Mr. Lawson said.

Overcoming community opposition is a key to the continued success and expansion of the regional airports.

The major airports are limited in their ability to expand. Reagan National, for example, is bordered by the Potomac River and the Interstate 495 Beltway.

Most regional airports, however, have plenty of land available to them and enough takeoff and landing slots that growth is not a problem. They also are spaced far enough apart that they can serve different parts of the metropolitan area without overlapping with other airports.

Gilbert Bauserman, co-owner of the Maryland Airport at Indian Head, said his single 3,000-foot runway has served customers mostly in Charles County since it opened in 1945. As the county's fortunes grow, he expects to develop his airport further. Mr. Bauserman has applied for federal funding to extend his runway to 4,300 feet. Afterward, he expects real estate developers to build industrial parks nearby.

"It's kind of like a magnet for business," he said.

David Wartofsky, owner of Potomac Airpark at Fort Washington, said that although he has no plans to lengthen his 2,665-foot runway, demand for his airport services is increasing steadily. In the past five years, he has increased the rent on hangars by 30 percent with no decrease in customers. He has used the increased revenue to improve infrastructure at Potomac Airpark.

"The economy is good, which is a factor," Mr. Wartofsky said. "Not only have the facilities improved, but the users are placing a higher priority on them."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide