By Tim Bradshaw
Bradshaw is executive director of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport.
More than four million visitors come to our region every year to explore Southwest Virginia. They shop at our markets and boutiques, paddle the abundant bodies of water, hike or bicycle hundreds of trails and top it off with a craft beverage and dine on some amazing food in our local restaurants. Not only do our visitors come here for the numerous amenities, but they also come here to do business. We have seen significant growth in our economy over the past few years.
The Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport is growing too. We’ve seen our passenger numbers increase over the past four years, and we are on track to have one of our best years ever in 2019. Year-over-year growth has ranged from 6-10% since 2015. The role of the airport in this growth cannot be overstated. The airport is critical to the vitality of the region and has an economic impact of nearly one half billion dollars per year and we support over 3,000 jobs in the region. We are the gateway to the world and the world’s gateway to Southwest Virginia.
One of the most frustrating parts of my job is managing the community’s expectation for commercial air service. Some people seem to think that air service is public transportation and they expect the airport to offer numerous, inexpensive flights to several destinations. This is not reality. The airlines decide when and where to fly and how much to charge for those flights. The airport commission and staff have no control over those decisions. We can only provide them with information on the market and try to convince them that they should deploy their aircraft and crews here. We can offer them incentives, but in the end it is the market that decides how much air service will be provided. It is the customer (demand) that determines how many flights (supply) will be offered.
However, there is one aspect of the journey we can influence and that is the airport experience. That is why we offer free Wi-Fi, conveniences, clean facilities and responsiveness to customer needs. Some examples of our focus on customer service include the new walkway canopy, new jet bridges, improved food and beverage offerings, online booking, online lost and found, to name a few.
One area that we’re going to concentrate on over the next couple of years is the rental car experience. Now I know that may not be an area that concerns our residents because most of our rentals are from out of town residents. We serve visitors from 49 other states and more than 194 countries and the rental car set up is less than desirable. Our current layout is confusing to visitors, and there is no room for growth. No queuing lines in the lobby. No office space for the rental car companies. Automobiles have to be taken off site to be cleaned, fueled and readied for the next rental. The terminal curb is congested with car rental returns with no clear wayfinding and the cars are mixed in with the long term parking lot. It is extremely confusing to our passengers.
Nearly three years ago the Airport Commission developed a plan to address this issue. A daily charge, known as a Customer Facility Charge (CFC), was added to the car rental price to provide funding for the improvements. No local tax revenues or commission operating funds will be used for the upgrades. The CFC user fee will cover the costs of this project. This is a multi-year strategy to improve our landside areas. The first phase of the project included an upgrade to our overflow lot across Aviation Drive. This was completed, and the lot is open continuously for our passengers to use. The next phase will include construction of a new state of the art Consolidated Rental Car Facility otherwise known as a CONRAC in the airport industry. There are several of these facilities across the country that have been built or are under construction as airports look to streamline their rental car operations and free up valuable real estate in and around the terminal. Over the next eighteen months we will be constructing this facility next to the airport terminal and we will be reconfiguring our parking lots, improving signage and wayfinding as well. The final phase of this program will include a Quick Turnaround Area (QTA) facility for washing and fueling rental cars.
The landside improvement program has been developed with an eye toward the future. Industry experts predict that autonomous vehicles will enter the market in 15-20 years. We have designed this project so that we can accommodate future developments in ground transportation. Regardless of who is or is not driving the car, the vehicles will still need to have space to be refueled, recharged and maintained for use.
The Roanoke Blacksburg Regional Airport needs infrastructure investments to meet the existing flow of passengers and to keep up with increased demand in the future. As Southwest Virginia prepares to welcome millions of local travelers and visitors to the region this summer and in the coming years, it is vital that we ensure that our airport is able to handle the large number of travelers but also serve our passengers properly. Modernizing the airport is vital for Southwest Virginia’s economic success.