NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) — Facing financial trouble, those who oversee the Newport News Williamsburg Airport are now partnering with what some might view as a competitor, in a hope of finding solutions.
On Thursday, the Peninsula Airport Commission and Norfolk Airport Authority officially announced their partnership along with the cities of Norfolk, Newport News, and Hampton that pursues a Go-Virginia grant to fund a “regional aviation, aerospace, and unmanned systems assessment.”
The $100,000 grant would be used to hire a consultant who would look at everything from the passenger travel, cargo, and underutilized property at Patrick Henry Field, to the five regional airports and even emerging vertical liftoff technology to come up with an aviation strategy for Hampton Roads.
The hope is to have a list of recommendations by fall. Time is of the essence, as a recent financial report found the airport commission could run out of money by next year.
Struggles at the airport aren’t new. Passenger counts have been on the decline for the last decade and the COVID-19 pandemic hit the airport especially hard.
A local economist said what the airport is really seeing is market effects. Norfolk’s airport just completed its busiest year in history. Commercial traffic also remains strong in Richmond, which is less than an hour from PHF.
American Airlines is now the sole operator out of the Bland Boulevard terminal. While they recently expanded with four daily direct flights to Charlotte, the airline fees collected aren’t enough to offset losses.
The airport’s current fiscal year operating budget projects a $2.5 million loss. A recent report stated that “based on current trends, the PAC will exhaust its cash balances during the 2023/2024 fiscal year and will require outside support to maintain current operation.”
Per state code, Newport News and Hampton taxpayers would be on the hook to make up the difference once the airport depletes its reserves.
Newport News City Manager Cindy Rolhf said she can’t recall if taxpayer funds have ever been used to cover operational costs in the airports’ more than 70-year history and she is hopeful it won’t come to that.
She supports the efforts spearheaded by PAC Chair Lindsey Carney Smith and Mayor Phillip Jones to chart a new course, through the aviation study.
“We need to pivot and we need to kind of look at what opportunities we have for this airport,” Carney Smith said. “Just looking at traditional air service recruitment. Those days are over.”
It’s somewhat of an about-face for the commission which had long placed all its bets on attracting new commercial airlines. Carney Smith said the airport still isn’t giving up on that effort, but will no longer go at it alone.
Carney Smith said she has been in talks with Deborah Painter, chair of Norfolk’s airport Board of Commissioners, about the benefits a regional strategy could have.
“Why not partner? Why not look at each other as sister airports on how we can further economic development for this entire region, over looking at each other as competitors,” Carney Smith said.
While it isn’t known what the consultant’s recommendations will be, Carney Smith said she does not think “closing the airport and making it a housing development” will be one of them.
“The airport unequivocally is not closing. We are looking for other opportunities to expand on our existing asset,” Carney Smith said. “We’ve got hundreds of acres that can be developed. We have two runways. We have a lot of gates that can serve additional air space and additional passenger traffic. But there is also a lot of other opportunities in aviation that people tend to forget about. There is your cargo, that’s your unmanned systems that are coming online in the next three years. We have an international terminal and customs area that is unused at this point.”
Jones is confident no matter what is said in the report, regional cooperation will only yield positive results.
“Hampton Roads has a long history of doing transportation at the regional level,” Jones said. “This is the perfect time for us to look at transportation across the entire region.”
If awarded, the grant requires a 50% match. Those funds will come from Norfolk, Newport News, and Hampton respectively.
Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander and Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck are also both on board, Jones said. If time does come that the airport funs out of funds, Jones said plans are already being made.
“The city manager, the city staff they do an amazing job of forecasting multiple different courses of action. We talk about three or four things every single day,” Jones said. “This airport is vital to Newport News’ future, this airport will stay open.”