After a spring hampered by the pandemic, Manassas Regional Airport has seen traffic return this summer.
According to figures from the airport commission, total aircraft operations were at their lowest in April at 2,694, nearly 5,000 fewer than in April 2019. But after another slow May, activity took a big jump in June, when the airport saw 6,842 operations, only about 1,000 below June of last year. In July, the gap was just 911.
Airport Director Juan Rivera said much of the airport’s resurgence in traffic is due to chartered flights: Rather than flying on a commercial aircraft where social distancing is difficult, the area’s wealthier residents are chartering private planes to go on vacation. Corporate travel, which has been well off its 2019 marks, also is starting to slowly tick back up, and the airport’s four flight schools are clearing the backlog of business that was suspended when operations were shut down in the spring.
There’s concern in the general aviation industry, however, that flight schools may suffer even after the pandemic ends due to contraction in the major commercial airlines. According to Airlines for America, five U.S. airlines have declared bankruptcy or shut down since the pandemic began, and the number of passengers flying on commercial aircraft is still roughly 70% below prior year levels. According to Rivera, some airport managers are worried that will filter down to the flight schools.
“It’s going to take the airlines several years to get back to where they were pre-pandemic. I think general aviation will … probably start to see more normal numbers by early next year,” Rivera said. “But how is it going to impact people who’ve been working their way through the [flight school] pipeline? Regional airports are cutting back and going into bankruptcy. Pre-pandemic we had a shortage of pilots, now airlines aren’t hiring — they’re cutting back.”
Rivera expects it to be some time before traffic at the airport returns to pre-pandemic levels, but some long-planned infrastructure improvements are beginning. Rehabilitation of the airport’s western runway is set to begin in a few weeks, and an adjacent taxiway will be completed shortly.
Then, there’s Chantilly Air’s construction. When completed, the $13 million project will make the company the airport’s second private-service provider, alongside APP Jet Center. Chantilly’s operation will include a 90,000-square-foot hangar and office space and amenities such as a fitness center and “snooze rooms” for pilots, as well as lounges for passengers.
City coffers will benefit in two ways from the expansion, both through property taxes and from the fuel flowage fee that the airport will collect from Chantilly as a fuel provider. But the company is also hoping to raise the airport’s profile. Manassas is already the state’s busiest general aviation airport, but Chantilly said it wants to make the airport the premier private aviation hub for the nation’s capital and its “executive class,” comparing it with what Teterboro Airport is for New York City.
Chantilly will be competing with the general aviation providers at Dulles International Airport. Manassas already gets significantly more general aviation traffic than Dulles, but according to Jimmy Thate, who will lead the new fixed-base operations for Chantilly Air, executive-level business travel has been dominated by Dulles.
Chantilly’s marketing manager, Caleb Stitely, agreed with Rivera that there’s been a surge in the number of people choosing chartered flights rather than commercial due to the pandemic.
“We have seen a tremendous amount of new clientele who maybe had the means of chartering before but they just didn’t, they would fly first-class maybe,” Stitely said, “who are now starting to be inquisitive and enter the charter market.”
Thate and Stitely see the airport as having a couple of important ways to set itself apart from competitors. First is convenience -- the ability to pull up, stroll through the terminal or drive right on to the taxiway to board a plane that won’t be waiting behind commercial flights to take off.
Operating out of Manassas is also less expensive than Dulles for chartered flights because of airport and landing fees, but Dulles offers easier access to Washington, and that will only be improved when Metro’s Silver Line extension opens. Stitely is hoping that when the toll lanes on Interstate 66 outside the Beltway are completed, they will serve a similar function for Manassas.
“It’s going to cut that travel time down significantly,” he said. “The folks that we’re looking at don’t mind spending $25, $30 if they can get out to the airport in a reasonable amount of time.”
Its first test in siphoning some of the executive-class travel will be in opening on time. There’s urgency in getting it done by the new year, with Inauguration Day slated Jan. 20. Four years ago, Stitely said, the airport had over 200 planes in town for the festivities, and it’s exactly that kind of clientele they’re chasing.