Commercial flights at Manassas airport? City leaders are optimistic

A rendering of proposed expansion at Manassas Regional Airport. (Courtesy Avports via InsideNoVa)
A rendering of proposed expansion at Manassas Regional Airport. (Courtesy Avports via InsideNoVa)
A rendering of what the Manassas Airport terminal could look like after an expansion for commercial passenger service. (Courtesy Avports via InsideNoVa)

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Commercial passenger flights could soon be taking off from Manassas.

The Manassas City Council is considering a proposal from airport management company Avports that would bring commercial flights to the city’s general aviation airport within the next two years.

On Monday, representatives from the Dulles Airport-based company laid out their proposal to an eager City Council: The company would enter a 40-year lease for the airport’s terminal and build a 35,000-square-foot addition, enough capacity for as many as 30 commercial passenger flights per day.

The overhaul would happen in two phases. First, the city’s Airport Commission and Avports would convert the existing facility for Transportation Security Administration screening and other commercial security requirements, a process that officials say would likely take between 18 and 24 months. Once that’s complete, Airport Director Juan Rivera said, the terminal could run up to about 10 flights per day.

Once that’s underway, the expansion work for phase two would begin, ultimately culminating in a new terminal complete with retail, concessions, expanded parking and more flights. The expansion would cost Avports an estimated $75-$125 million.

“This is right down the street from our headquarters,” Matt Shelby, Avports’ vice president for business development, said Monday night. “We want this to be a flagship for us, and we’re going to do it right.”

In an interview with InsideNoVa, Rivera said the costs to the city would come in the form of additional operations staff and costs associated with meeting the enhanced federal requirements for commercial airports.

According to Shelby’s comments to the council Monday night, the Avports deal would generate at least $700,000 in ground rents for the airport, in addition to increased fuel fees and business tax revenue. And while Avports would have a 40-year lease on the airport’s terminal building, the improvements its planning would remain city property.

Shelby was tight-lipped about what airlines might be considering beginning service at the airport, citing non-disclosure agreements, but he said several are interested.

“Our airline partners, multiple of them, are extremely excited about serving this market, and in a way, from the airline side, that I haven’t seen in a while,” he said. “So I think that just adds to the excitement around our shop.”

Rivera told InsideNoVa last week that any carriers operating from Manassas would likely be budget operators like Spirit, JetBlue or Breeze. Destinations, he said, would likely include Florida.

In the past, Allegiant Air approached the city directly about serving the airport, but Rivera said they wanted the city to foot the bill for the requisite upgrades, something that was effectively a non-starter for the Airport Commission.

The potential benefit to the carriers is that the airport would be cheaper to operate out of. According to Rivera, it would cost the airlines about $8-$10 per passenger to run flights out of Manassas, compared to over $15 per passenger at airports like Dulles International or Reagan National.

“That is going to make it marketable from an airline standpoint,” he said. “And I think what you’re going to see is the low-cost carriers … These guys typically want to go into a regional airport because they are not going to be paying the higher cost of doing business.”

Avports approached Rivera over a year ago about possibly making plans for commercial service. After some back-and-forth, the city issued a request for proposal for the terminal upgrade and ground lease, and Avports was the only firm that made a submission. The commission recommended the plan for approval earlier this month.

The company currently operates 11 airports in similar public-private partnerships, including Airglades Airport in Hendry County, Florida and Teterboro Airport in Bergen County, New Jersey. According to Shelby, its longest-running contract is 52 years-old, with The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The lease, Rivera said, would also require the company to have an agreement with at least one commercial airline to operate out of the airport. And if that airline ever leaves, the company would still be on the hook for what it owes the airport commission.

“So the risk that they’re taking is that they’re going to expend all of this money, and if the airline leaves, they’re going to be still on the hook to pay the rent and all the other necessary reimbursements and fees that they’re expected to pay,” he told InsideNoVa.

According to Rivera, the airport’s general aviation and aeronautic business tenants would be largely unaffected by the changes, other than potentially having to relocate small planes to the airport’s west side. At most, the new commercial flights might add an additional 15,000 “operations” – either takeoffs or landings – in a year, but the airport already sees about 100,000 annually, so the change wouldn’t represent a significant shift for the entire airport.

But councilmembers speaking Monday night said the commercial flights would mark a big shift for the city.

“I’m excited,” Mayor Michelle Davis-Younger told the Avports representatives Monday. “I know that it’s going to be a wonderful thing for us and take us to the next level, just cannot wait for you to get started.”

On Monday night, Shelby showed off artist renderings of what the Manassas terminal might eventually look like after the expansion.

“We want the vibe … to feel open, to feel Manassas,” Shelby said. “This is going to be Manassas. This is going to feel Manassas, it’s going to be Manassas. I think, whenever people fly in and out, yeah they may be using it to access other areas or they may be coming to visit friends and relatives in Manassas, but they’re going to know that they were in Manassas when they’re in the terminal, and that’s going to be a key part of our design.”

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