Saturday, August 13, 2016

Private flights dominate Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport (KSHD)

WEYERS CAVE – It might not be evident to a casual traveler, but the fuel pushing Augusta County's regional airport traffic to new heights in recent years has consistently been a high percentage of private flights.

Business executives on corporate jets, or recreational flights on the weekend, are a big part of why more than 90 percent of the airport activity is non-public right now, a review of airport statistics shows.

Every day, 70 to 80 planes take off or land at Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport, with the numbers dropping a bit during the winter months. Every day, only about six of the takeoffs and landings, referred to as operations by airports, are retail flights — Silver Airways flights headed to Washington Dulles International Airport to catch connections.

The rest of the flights fall into myriad private categories, including everything from corporate jets to charter planes and recreational flight to air medevac.

Airport officials contacted for this story said they are unable to discuss which corporations utilize the airport, citing privacy reasons.

But Jeff Beckman, director of corporate communications at Hershey, explained why his company has used SHD. He said using private air travel helps Hershey access rural areas not regularly serviced by commercial airlines. Though Hershey hasn't flown a corporate plane into Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport in quite a while, according to Beckman, they have used it in the past for senior leaders in the company.

Over the last decade, the private plane sector has increased greatly at the airport, said Greg Campbell, executive director of the airport.

“The vast majority are corporate or business aircraft during the week, a little more private and recreational in the mix on the weekends,” Campbell said. He said corporations and businesses often find it cost and schedule effective to utilize private aircrafts because they can set their own schedule, fly directly to a specific location and not go through security.

At Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport, there are two separate terminals — one for commercial and one for private.

A distinct advantage of flying private is that you do not have to go through security. When flying private, the pilot knows who they are picking up, and comes and lets their passengers get directly on the plane, according to Campbell.

“Over the last 15 years we’ve had significant growth in terms of our operations, takeoffs and landings,” Campbell said. “In terms of 20 years ago, we were 30 to 40 percent of what we are today.”

Tim Fitzgerald, Augusta County administrator, said the airport contributes a significant amount to the county’s economy, citing a Virginia Department of Aviation study that reported the airport brings in an estimated $26 million annually.

“That economic impact is a benefit to our citizens not only in Augusta County but the region as a whole,” Fitzgerald said. “The airport is a great benefit to Augusta County in regards to economic development and recruiting business and industry to the county.”

General aviation accounts for 95 percent of the airport's operating revenue, according to Campbell, with 5 percent of that coming from the airline. Most general aviation funds come from the airport's fuel concession, according to Campbell, but the funds also come from other airport fees such as hangars, handling fees and other various airport services.

The airport is constantly seeking to improve and provide better services for customers. Every 20 years, Campbell said, airports are expected to come up with a new master plan, detailing every potential upgrade or maintenance issue they think they might need in the next two decades, from new buildings to paving runways. The last master plan for the airport was completed in 1999.

Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport gets funds from local government and is able to leverage them with the Federal Aviation Administration to get even more funding.

Out of the approximately $2 million the airport plans to spend on improvements this year, Campbell said only a fraction of that money comes from various localities. For the current fiscal year, Augusta County gave the airport $134,080, Staunton provided them with $48,159 and Waynesboro gave $44,052.

“It is very important for us to help fund the airport as our funding is used as match to leverage state and federal dollars for capital improvements to the airport facility,” Fitzgerald said.

The airport receives federal and state funding as well to help maintain its grounds and facilities. Safety is always first, said Campbell, stating it is much easier to get funding to repave and make sure a runway is safe than it is to improve upon something that doesn’t effect the safety of airport users.

“It’s almost 60 years old now, so it’s an ongoing process,” Campbell said about keeping the facilities maintained. “Infrastructure ages, and then you replace it, and it ages.”

This year, improvements include repaving the runway and taxiway, getting a new firetruck and new 22-foot wide snow plows to help improve the airport’s functionality and safety, Campbell said.

Campbell said that the airport is in negotiations to look for even more public flights as well, with the airport now averaging 25,000 passengers per year in airline traffic.

Even though private flights wildly outnumber public flights, Fitzgerald said it has no impact on the amount of funding the county provides to the airport and that both private and commercial flights have a positive impact on local citizens.

“Their presence presents opportunities that would not be available otherwise. Flying commercially out of SHD is a benefit to our citizens. Free parking and short security lines are just a couple of the many benefits of being able to fly locally,” Fitzgerald said.


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