Allegiant just announced it would start flying from Richmond to the Tampa area. Why is that new service not a sign of economic progress in southeastern Virginia?
There are three airports in southeastern Virginia providing scheduled passenger service. Between Richmond (RIC), Newport News/Williamsburg (PHF), and Norfolk (ORF), they carry roughly 3.5 million passengers a year.
Those three airports continue to invest in upgrading separate facilities, competing for business, and splitting the customer base. The Newport News/Williamsburg airport is 60 miles east of the Richmond airport and 30 miles north of the Norfolk airport, and local officials are focused on economic development of their separate jurisdictions in three separate areas.
The fragmented market makes it difficult for any airline to make a single airport into a major hub and provide better service to more locations.
Fragmentation even blocks discount and vacation airlines from providing reliable service.
AirTran carried 50% of the passengers at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport in 2011. In 2012, after Southwest acquired the discount airline, it stopped service at Newport News/Williamsburg and increased service at the Richmond airport.
Vacation season airline Allegiant filled the void at Newport News/Williamsburg, but only briefly. In 2014, it abandoned the airport, avoiding competition with soon-to-start PeoplExpress. PeoplExpress service at Newport News/Williamsburg lasted only three months, and then Allegiant announced it would start service from Richmond.
Closing Newport News/Williamsburg and concentrating 3.5 million customers at just two airports would trigger airlines to offer better service to more locations from southeastern Virginia – but today, no local official on the Peninsula could afford to endorse such a regional approach. Newport News would lose competitive advantages in attracting new business and retaining existing commercial operations, if the airport closed.
Of course, there are ways to compensate the jurisdictions on the Peninsula for such an economic disadvantage.
Bristol and Washington County negotiated a revenue sharing deal, to facilitate the city’s economic initiative at Exit 5 on I-81. The deal mitigated the impact on Washington County ,when the Lowe’s store moved across the jurisdictional boundary to the new “Falls” development within Bristol.
There are opportunities for regional initiatives to re-balance the impacts. Williamsburg, James City County, and York County do not share the costs of funding the airport, so other jurisdictions might choose to subsidize a regional project that focused economic benefits on just Newport News and Hampton.
The new Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission has already prioritized widening I-64 from four to six lanes between Hampton-Williamsburg. That’s the most obvious way to benefit Newport News and Hampton, and it’s already going to be funded.
The possibility exists that various jurisdictions in southeastern Virginia could find another way to improve airline service by consolidating rather than fragmenting the market – but that would require a united regional perspective.
The selection of a chair for the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission require nine votes before a decision could be made… so there is no reason to assume the other jurisdictions would be willing to negotiate any closure of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.
(For more, see Air Transportation in Virginia.)