Be part of the solution! This was the theme and call to action at the Air Service Forum on June 26, 2018, put on by the Hampton Roads Chamber and the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, (HRPDC). “How do we position Hampton Roads as a region to be more competitive?,” asked Bob Crum, Executive Director, HRPDC.
Area business leaders and 17 of the region’s elected officials were represented in the audience as well as the education and tourism sectors. The subject matter experts included William Swelbar, Chief Industry Strategist for Delta Airport Consultants. Robert Bowen, Executive Director of Norfolk International Airport, (ORF), and Mike Giardino, Executive Director of Williamsburg/Newport News Airport, (PHF). Crum and Chamber President & CEO, Bryan K. Stephens led the panel discussion.
In his more than 30 years working in Air Transportation, Swelbar described Hampton Roads as one of the most complicated places for air travel. Swelbar emphasized the need for economic development. “It really is the end game. Economic development and maximization,” he said. Swelbar explained that the most important day in the airline industry was January 18, 2018. This was the day the 20 finalists for the Amazon HQ2 location were announced. “It was based on air service connectivity. The domestic and global considerations for their choices,” Swelbar said.
Additionally, Swelbar outlined the seven forces at work undermining air service development efforts today: Consolidation, Capacity Deployment Strategies, Cost of Jet Fuel, Larger aircraft, Pilot supply, Reliability, and Scope Clause Constraints.
The buzz word was connectivity and Swelbar indicated it could not be emphasized enough. "Connectivity to the grid is what is important to the air service connectivity index.” Richmond and Norfolk are ranked numbers one and three respectively out of 71 small hub airports in connectivity. With regards to PHF, Swelbar suggested the economy is the most important variable in attracting new carriers. “It is up to the community stakeholders in this room to work together to improve the economy. It is less about the three airports working together than the economic development departments working together to make this region attractive,” Swelbar said.
Robert Bowen discussed the long history of Norfolk International Airport ( ORF) which he has been a part of for nearly 40 years. On the site of a former golf course, ORF was used as an Army Airfield in WWII and became a commercial airport in 1947. It now operates 6 airlines, with 24 non-stop destinations to Hubs or regional gateways. Adding Allegiant Airlines to the fleet in fall 2017 and bringing Frontier on in August 2018. “We serve 16 of the 20 busiest markets,” Bowen said. ORF is actively working on West Coast flights which it is currently lacking. Bowen also detailed the 50 million dollars in renovations, improvements and additions the airport has undergone since 2010. Looking ahead, he discussed the 32 projects involved in a 100 million dollar capital improvement project which will rehabilitate the runway in multiple phases as well as replace the passenger loading bridges.
One of the main efforts and concerns for ORF is the need for a parallel runway. This would allow for maintenance activities to occur on the primary runway. As it stands now, the runway has to be completely shut down from midnight to 5:00AM for maintenance. Two environmental impact studies have been attempted but each time the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has halted plans citing insufficient justification for the parallel runway.
Executive Director Giardino, by contrast has been at Newport News/Williamsburg Airport (PHF) approximately 8 months, with a background in Naval Aviation. He shared a story of being at the Pentagon on 9/11 when the aviation industry changed fundamentally. “You don’t need to have long-term memory in this business, as things change rapidly,” he said. Referencing PHF’s loss of AirTran Airlines, Giardino said, “Our community could not have predicted what would have happened when AirTran went away, but we are still the heart of Coastal Virginia and my airport is strong.” When Southwest closed 66% of their AirTran cities, PHF was on the list. Giardino is working on attracting airlines, as there is a strong demand in the business community for them. “The top 10 largest employers on the Peninsula are demanding it and have needs for air travel,” Giardino said.
With the AirTran closure, there was a near 1:1 shift of traffic from PHF to ORF/RIC as people followed the service. “We are ready. We can handle an international market and we embrace the competitive environment,” Giardino said.
As the panelists opened up to audience questions, a theme emerged concerning the vision of the region 20-30 years from now. Referencing Nashville and Pittsburgh, both cities that have highly successful airports and are growing, their airports invested decades ago for the vision they had for the future of their cities.
Swelbar said, “If you want to grow your community business-wise, all these airports need to functionally and strategically be capable of matching the vision for the future.
Audience member and former Norfolk Airport Authority commissioner, Deborah K. Stearns, added, “It is about supply and demand. The best way to build air service is to fly our airports.” All panelists agreed that the best thing the community can do to help air service is to use the airports.
Bowen said, “Better collaboration between economic development and the community with a pitch for economic initiatives and negotiations with prospective new employers to the area and with the airport, it’s a two-way street.”
Crum asked the panelists when they are promoting the region to airlines, what are they hearing? Bowen said, “This region is lagging behind in recovery from recession and sequestration, other regions outpace us and they are winning.”
Giardino said, “There’s an identity issue here and it’s a factor. What are we? Tidewater? Hampton Roads? Costal Virginia? We have an identity crisis and it doesn’t help.”
Stephens emphasized the Hampton Roads Chamber’s commitment to setting the conditions for businesses to succeed. “We know part of being successful is transportation and infrastructure and there is much our air service providers here are doing right. We have to promote the assets we have here and the Chamber will rally the business community around improvements.” The Chamber means business and is a powerful economic partner and impactful advocate that works to shape public policy and improve both the economy and quality of life in the region.