Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Field of Green? With an influx of new businesses, the county airport prepares for takeoff: Richmond Executive – Chesterfield County Airport (KFCI), Richmond, Virginia

Its turbines roaring, an olive drab HH-60 Black Hawk helicopter of the Virginia Air National Guard revs up its blades as a small Cessna lines up for takeoff in the distance. Assorted on the tarmac are several sleek corporate jets – some capable of transoceanic travel – available for hire.

The site is Chesterfield County Airport, but if one is a corporate aviation dispatcher looking on a website, it pops up on the screen as Richmond Executive Airport. The name shift is part of a 3-year-old branding campaign to lure civil and general aviation travelers as the Richmond area ramps up with more multinational companies.

“If you are a corporate aviation dispatcher in Van Nuys, California, and your client wants to fly in to the Richmond area, he’s not likely to recognize the Chesterfield name,” says Woody Carr, chief information manager of the Chesterfield Economic Development Authority.

To most Chesterfield residents, the airport at state Route 288 and Iron Bridge Road is the same old strip with the same name that it’s always been – a place where singlepropeller aircraft and small jets come and go. It’s also known for its occasional air shows and exhibits of vintage World War II combat aircraft. The official name is still the Chesterfield County Airport.

But three years ago, a survey by the National Business Aviation Association in Washington, D.C., showed that commercial aviation dispatchers, perhaps the most important players in determining what airport private corporate fliers choose, had little idea where Chesterfield was. If they wanted to go to Richmond, they would often simply go to the much larger Richmond International Airport.

Hence the county, economic development officials and Dominion Aviation, the fixed-base operator, which provides services at the airport, got together and created the new name, “Richmond Executive Airport,” with a spiffy black-and-white logo. They use it online and peddle it at conferences and conventions favored by commercial aviation players, especially dispatchers.

“We’re trying to attract all types of aviation,” says Patrick Driscoll, airport administrator. “We’re interested in attracting more corporate jets and we’ve been designated a ‘reliever’ airport to take off stress at Richmond International.” The airport is now home to about 120 private aircraft, including 13 corporate jets operated by Dominion. The Virginia State Police operates its aviation unit there and the Virginia Air National Guard keeps about five helicopters, including three Black Hawks, on site.

Expanding corporate traffic is an important challenge since the airport will be extending its runway from 5,500 feet to 6,300 feet by 2019. That won’t be enough to handle large commercial jetliners, but it will let long-range corporate jets such as Gulfstreams and Cessna Citations take off and land with more fuel (shorter runways have weight restrictions). Thomas T. “Mike” Mickel, president of Dominion Aviation, says that’s important because corporate executives traveling across the country would prefer to do so in nonstop flights.

Whether it is called “Chesterfield” or “Richmond Executive,” the airfield does have some clear advantages. Its location next to Route 288, just a few miles from Interstate 95, gives travelers easy access to downtown Richmond and the Short Pump and West Creek business corridors west of Richmond. It’s a quick drive to some new businesses in Chesterfield, such as the Amazon distribution center and the proposed, $2 billion paper mill by Chinese firm Shandong Tranlin on the James River.

Longtime real estate developer Sidney Gunst, one of the masterminds behind Innsbrook in the late 1970s and a private pilot, has been flying out of the Chesterfield airport for 25 years. He sees the branding campaign as a bright idea. “A lot of outer-ring airports have done this to promote economic development. It’s a good idea,” he says, adding that he’s seen an uptick in corporate jets at the county airport recently.

The only other general aviation airport in the metro area is in Hanover, which is slightly smaller in size, but just as accessible from western Henrico and downtown Richmond. But for businesses south of the James, the Chesterfield airport has the superior location and is far more accessible via I-95.

But not everyone is sold. George Hoffer, an economics professor and transportation expert at the University of Richmond, says he isn’t certain that Chesterfield would have much of an advantage over Richmond International for corporate travel. Richmond International “isn’t that congested now and has the services. I would think [the Chesterfield airport] would only be competitive on price for landing fees and services,” he says.

Chesterfield may hold the hole card there. Richmond Jet Center, a fixed-based operator at Richmond International, says it costs $200 in landing fees to bring in a high-end Citation V jet. At Dominion Aviation in Chesterfield, landing fees are waived if the plane picks up fuel. The airport can handle international flights as well (U.S. Customs agents can be called in to handle incoming flights).

The branding campaign hasn’t produced clear results yet. Mickel says there has been a marginal increase in corporate traffic at Chesterfield. But he adds it is important to see progress in the long term. “We are now just getting back to levels before the economic downturn,” he says.

If the current run of company recruitment continues, the Richmond Executive Airport, aka Chesterfield County Airport, is bound to get busier, especially if far-away dispatchers in Omaha or other spots recognize it as being in the greater Richmond area.

Story and Photos:

No comments:

Post a Comment