there are General Aviation airports in Southwestern Virginia south and west of Roanoke, but no airport in that region of Virginia offers scheduled commercial passenger service (indicated by)
Source: Virginia Department of Aviation, 2013 Virginia Air Transportation System Plan Update
Most Virginia airports are for general aviation rather than commercial passenger service. General Aviation airports allow private planes to land and offer ground services such as refueling. Such airports typically lack air traffic control towers, and pilots must pay close attention to other aircraft in the area when taking off or landing using the pilots eyes to maintain separation.
A General Aviation airport in a rural area may not see a lot of traffic, but can be essential to the local economy. Even a small airport offers a fast connection for business executives to reach urban centers. Communities seeking to recruit factories, and other business that might provide jobs and tax revenues, highlight their transportation connections.
Funding to operate General Aviation airports, while small by the standards of major airports with scheduled commercial passenger service such as Washington Dulles, can be a significant challenge for local governments.
Funding for capital improvements, including upgrading safety equipment and runways, comes from Federal and state grants.
Funding for operations at most General Aviation airport comes from leasing space to Fixed Base Operators that sell gas and other services to pilots, leasing space for parking airplanes at tie-down sites, and tax revenues from local jurisdictions that want some form of airport access. There is not enough demand for the small airports to charge landing fees to visiting planes or a passenger tax for commercial flights, two major revenue sources for the nine Virginia airports with scheduled commercial passenger service.
Source: Stafford Regional Airport
Keeping a General Aviation airport open requires keeping local jurisdictions aware of the benefits of the facility. Local officials are reminded of the costs during each budget cycle.
Mountain Empire Airport is a general aviation airport built in 1958 as a joint project by the counties of Wythe and Smyth, plus the towns of Wytheville, Rural Retreat and Marion. Rural Retreat withdrew from the partnership, and in 2014 Wythe County supervisors questioned the costs vs. benefits of spending about $60,000/year to stay in the Smyth/Wythe Airport Commission. Advocates for maintaining the public airport cited potential economic development advantages, plus the safety benefits of providing a landing site for air ambulance services.1
Mountain Empire Airport provides quick access for corporate and financial executives to reach factories and operations in southwestern Virginia
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The nine airports in Virginia that offer scheduled commercial passenger service today are also General Aviation airports. The three-letter airport codes are modified by adding a "K" in front to define their International Civil Aviation Organization airport code, so the General Aviation identifier for Dulles International Airport is KIAD.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has identified 3,332 airports in the United States that meet Federal design standards, and classified 3,332 airports in the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS). In Virginia, 47 qualify for Federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding.
In addition to the nine airports that offer scheduled passenger service, 38 General Aviation airports can obtain Federal grants for capital improvements to reduce safety hazards, enhance navigation, repair facilities, etc.2
The Virginia Department of Aviation has classified 66 public use airports based on their economic and transportation roles. Of that total, 19 are General Aviation Regional airports and 16 are General Aviation Community airports. The state classification system also sets a threshold for authorizing state government funding.
The state agency does not deal with seaplanes. Because there are no licensed, public-use seaplane bases in Virginia, local governments regulate how seaplanes can use waterways for takeoffs and landing and for parking the planes.
14 airports designated "Local" by the Virginia Department of Aviation have limited access to state funding except for safety and preservation projects. All others are eligible for grants to upgrade infrastructure. The state's goals is for all airports not designated "Local" and with more than 500 annual jet operations to upgrade runway lengths to 5,500 feet to to service more turbine-powered jets.3
Some of the original General Aviation airports have been closed and developed for retail shopping centers or housing. In Prince William County, the Woodbridge Airport opened in 1959. It had a straight, but not flat, runway.
the runway at Woodbridge Airport was cleared, but not flattened, when constructed in 1959
Source: Historic Prince William, View of the Woodbridge Airport in the late 1980s, shortly after it closed
Development of the Lake Ridge community spread westward along Old Bridge Road in the 1980's. Residents supported rezoning the site, in part to provide more shopping opportunities close to home and in part because of safety concerns. Crashes in 1979 and 1985 killed ten people at Woodbridge Airport.
Aircraft operations ceased on May 31, 1987. The site was developed into Dillingham Square with retail stores. The general manager of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority noted that General Aviation airports had been disappearing from Northern Virginia:4
Washington-Hoover Airport had closed in 1941 after the new National Airport opened. The Hybla Valley Airport, between Alexandria and Mount Vernon, had been considered as a potential site to replace Washington-Hoover Airport until President Roosevelt chose the Gravelly Point location. Hybla Valley Airport also failed to become a destination for zeppelins, and finally closed in 1956. The residential neighborhood that occupies part of the site has streets named after aircraft and aviation companies.5
a subdivision at the site of the old Hybla Valley Airport has aviation-based street names
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Beacon Field Airport closed in 1959, and was replaced by Beacon Mall. Falls Church Airport closed in 1960 and was replaced by Loehmann's Plaza.
The Washington-Virginia Airport at Bailey's Crossroads closed in 1970, ending the challenge that pilots faced of avoiding the drive-in movie theater screen at the end of a runway. One pilot, cutting it too close, left tire marks when he scraped the top of that screen. Skyline Towers has replaced the Washington-Virginia Airport.6
Woodbridge Airport opened in 1959, but after closing in 1987 the site was developed for retail as Dillingham Square
Source: Historic Prince William, Dillingham Square on Old Bridge Road
After the Woodbridge Airport closed, Prince William officials considered constructing a new General Aviation airport on the Cherry Hill peninsula. One option was to build a dike and fill in the shoreline along the Potomac River for a runway. The $73 million cost, and the restrictions on destruction of wetlands, created obstacles too high for the Cherry Hill site.
Prince William County then joined with Stafford County and the City of Fredericksburg to form the Stafford Regional Airport Authority. It opened Stafford Regional Airport (RMN) in 2001. The site, along I-95 in Stafford County, was close enough to Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Washington National Airport (DCA) to qualify for Federal construction funding as a "reliever" airport.
A decade later, after Base Closure and Realignment increased the role of nearby Quantico Marine Corps Base, the first terminal was constructed at the regional airport.7
Manassas has managed to retain its General Aviation airport, but relocated the field in 1964.
The first airport at Manassas opened in 1932 and operated for 32 years. After IBM built a computer chip factory in Manassas and the Virginia Department of Transportation built Interstate 66, the airport was hemmed in by new housing subdivisions and retail strip shopping districts. The Town of Manassas purchased another site three miles away, south of town and away from the development pattern.
In 1964, the new Manassas Regional Airport (HEF) - Harry P. Davis Field opened. The old site was soon developed into the Manaport (Manassas Airport) Plaza shopping center and housing.
Negotiations that led to creation of the Stafford Regional Airport Authority also included a commitment by the Federal Aviation Administration to equip and staff a tower to manage landings and takeoffs at Manassas. The new site is the busiest General Aviation airport in Virginia.
In 2021, the Stafford Regional Airport Authority warned that the approval by Stafford County supervisors of a new age-restricted housing development with 142 homes would generate noise complaints. The site for the Clift Hill development was seven miles from the airport, and outside of the direct flight path of normal airport traffic, but airport officials wanted all purchasers to be notified of the potential for noise.8
the first airport at Manassas (red circle) is now the Manaport Shopping Center, redeveloped after the new airport (yellow square) opened in 1964
Source: Prince William Library, 1962 Manassas and Prince William Map
the site of the original Manassas airport (red X), across Sudley Road from Manassas Mall, is three miles from today's Manassas Regional Airport (HEF)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Manaport Shopping Center, opposite Manassas Mall, in 2018
Source: Historic Prince William, Manassas Mall - #333
Local governments typically lease airport space to a Fixed Base Operator (FBO), who provide aviation fuel and other services. General Aviation airports large enough to support two fixed base operators can provide competitive prices, but local government officials end up negotiating contracts that create conflicts between them.
Chesterfield County approved a 30-year operations agreement and 40-year lease for a second Fixed Base Operator at Chesterfield County Airport in 2018. A private company had serviced planes there since 1991. Small aircraft pilots complained that it prioritized large aircraft, including private jets, and supported a lease to a second company.
The issue became a contentious political football for the elected Board of Supervisors. It directed the Airport Advisory Board to stop making public statements, and one member was replaced in the middle of his term for being too outspoken. In the end, the supervisors authorized the second operator in a 3-2 vote.9
Local governments set property tax rates that airplane owners must pay annually. Setting low property tax rates for airplanes is one way that local jurisdictions compete with each other to attract business to their public airport. At the state level, a one-time 2% sales tax is imposed whenever an airplane is sold in Virginia. If a plane is brought to Virginia and based within the state for 60 days, then the owner must pay the 2% tax to the Virginia Department of Taxation even though no sales transaction has occurred.10
Virginia Highlands Airport at Abingdon started as a small dirt strip in a farmer's field in 1958. An employee of Appalachian Power Company initiated construction of the new field, in order to live in Abingdon and fly to work on construction of the Clinch River Power Plant in Russell County.
As I-81 was planned, Abingdon and Washington County recognized the economic benefits of having an airport. They arranged for paving one 2,800-foot long, 40-foot wide runway. The narrow, short runway liited use to recreational flying until 1986, when a new 3380-foot long, 75-foot wide runway was completed. In 1990, the runway was extended to 4,470 feet.
The Airport Commission was reconstituted as the Virginia Highlands Airport Authority in 2007, with Washington County supervisors appointing one representative from each magisterial district committed $24 million to extend its runway from 4,471 feet to 5,500 feet. The FAA has provided 90 percent of funding, while 8 percent comes from the state and 2 percent from Washington County, Hines said.
Manassas airport, with Blue Ridge in background
Source: Historic Prince William, Aerial Photo Survey 2019
Manassas airport terminal (red circle)
Source: Historic Prince William, Aerial Photo Survey 2019