Study: Airports are key economic drivers

Unlike California, Virginia understands the value of their airports as part of the state transportation infrastructure and as an economic engine. Read more…………

WILLIAMSBURG – On a recent late summer morning, the Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport appeared quite unremarkable.

Four single-engine airplanes were parked on the tarmac – their pilots no where in sight. The hazy air was still and the familiar buzz of small plane engines absent. The famous Charly’s Airport Restaurant – that draws diners from well beyond the horizon – had yet to open for the day. Few people were observed milling about the airport property.

Nothing about the scene belied the fact that this small airstrip, nestled between the Williamsburg Winery and Route 199, is itself an engine that generates more than $4 million in economic activity each year. The airport also supports 62 (direct and indirect) jobs with a payroll of more than $1.2 million.

That was the finding of a recent economic impact study conducted by the Virginia Department of Aviation on the state’s nine commercial and 57 general aviation airports. The report found Virginia’s public-use airports contribute $28.8 billion in economic activity to the state economy – about 4.4 percent of total output. And they are credited with creating and sustaining approximately 259,000 jobs – about 5.5 percent of the state total – with $11.1 billion in payroll.

The report drew from data collected through a “comprehensive survey” of airport managers, on-airport tenants, off-airport businesses, visitors and data collected from U.S. government agencies.

It concluded more than 69,000 people board commercial planes and more than 6,000 aircraft take-off or land at state airports each day. Further, each job at a Virginia airport supports seven additional positions and every $1 spent at a Virginia airport contributes an additional $3.48 in economic activity, the report concluded.

The report showed:

   . Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport contributes $373.5 million to the local economy, including 3,382 jobs with a payroll of more than $114 million.

   . Norfolk International Airport generates more than $1 billion in economic activity and supports more than 10,000 jobs with payroll of more than $341 million.

   . Richmond International Airport supports more than 10,900 jobs, with $350 million in payroll, and generates more than $1 billion in economic activity.

Ken Spirito, executive director of the Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport, noted a portion of the study that indicated the Peninsula facility is the smallest of the three regional airports, but is second in terms of visitor spending.

“With AirTran leaving, the economic impact of the airport is more important now than it’s ever been,” he said. “There is significant value to understanding how important access to the Peninsula is for business, military and tourism.”

Small but mighty

Perhaps most surprising in the report is the economic thrust of the state’s smallest airports. According to the report, Virginia’s general aviation airports contributed $728 million in economic activity in 2010 and were responsible for nearly 5,200 jobs with an annual payroll of more than $213 million.

By late morning, this becomes clearer as the Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport’s bustle breaks the country quiet. A number of planes take-off and land.

Several pilots and passengers (from Holland of all places) prepare their planes to continue flights that were paused for an overnight stay. A local pilot shows up for his regular morning coffee. A corporate helicopter lands and several men dressed in business casual scurry across the tarmac. The flight school down the runway stirs awake.

Charly’s restaurant was still yet to open, but the airport’s owner Larry Waltrip assured there would be more activity later.

“A lot of people fly in for lunch,” he said. “It’s a good stop if someone is traveling down the coast.”

In fact, Charly’s is widely known as one of the best “fly-in” restaurants in the country – as voted by pilots on 100dollarhamburger.com, a subscription-based website with more than 54,000 readers, most of whom are pilots who own their own aircraft, according to publisher John Purner.

“Charly’s has been one of the Best of the Best since 2006, except for 2008 when it received a runner-up award,” Purner wrote, in an email. “Only three other restaurants in the United States have matched Charly’s accomplishment.”

Disclaimer: Charly’s doesn’t sell a $100 hamburger, or hamburgers at all for that matter. The aviation term apparently references an excuse to go flying.

‘Social center’

Waltrip says the Williamsburg airport handled 15,084 take-offs and landings in 2010. The 43-year-old family-owned business – and “dying breed,” in Waltrip’s words – serves College of William & Mary parents and students, corporate travelers, tourists, entertainers performing at Busch Gardens and golfers.

Waltrip says the airport makes significant contributions (directly and indirectly) to local taxes and businesses like restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions. Despite periodic construction of new hangars, the airport has, for years, maintained a waiting list of pilots who want to store planes, the owner continued.

“In a 24-hour day, a lot goes on that the public is not aware of at all,” Waltrip said. “The airport is doing more than people think. We’re pleased they did the study, it proved what we’ve been talking about.”

Pilot Alan Melton calls the Williamsburg airport his “social center.”

“In every community there are these airplane guys. The general aviation airport is the center to which all these guys gravitate,” Melton said.

“I’m sure Larry could build another 20 hangars and fill them. It’s a very handily located place.”

     Virginia airports’ impact

Jobs: 259,000

Payroll: $11.1 billion

Economic activity: $28.8 billion

Source: Virginia Department of Aviation

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