Economic Development and the Future of Local Airports: An Interview (Part 1)
By: Scott Burkhead
I recently met with Dion Viventi, P.E., CFI, Managing Director of The Rocky Mount – Wilson Airport. The airport is an hour east of the central Research Triangle area and serves Edgecombe, Nash and Wilson counties and some overflow from RDU. RWI is a new client for BBG, and we will begin Phase I of a long-term branding assignment in late November.
The purpose of this interview was to get Dion’s perspective on both the future of General Aviation and how smaller airports including General Aviation only airports, contribute to economic development in their surrounding towns and counties.
Scott Burkhead: Dion, we’ve talked about problems that smaller communities have in attracting talent and jobs. Can you give me your thoughts on how local airports are an important link in the economic development chain for communities?
Dion Viventi: Sure. Airports are the front door to most communities when a business or industry is interested in locating there because the owners and their representatives and vendors need to be able to travel quickly in and out of the area. They like to fly, so they’re looking for the proximity to the airport for their expansion or new location. If there is an airport nearby, the second question they have is, “Is it an all-weather airport? Can it support my aircraft? Can it support the aircraft of my business partners? How far do we have to drive to the airport? What traffic should we expect from us and the airport? Is the airport busy? Is the airport expensive to fly in and out of? Are there fees involved? Are there expensive fuel prices?” All those things.
Burkhead: Do they ask about amenities, like hotels near the airport and good restaurants nearby?
Viventi: Those kinds of questions are one reason airports are starting to evolve into destinations so that business travelers don’t have to spend time moving around once they get to the airport. They can hold their conferences, stay overnight, dine, entertain themselves and their clients in or near the airport. You’re starting to see a lot of these amenities crop up around the airport proper, especially around regional and local airports. You’re not seeing this as much in the smaller airports, but you will, as the state and the federal government spend more and more money improving the airports and expanding their capabilities.
Burkhead: Capabilities other than the amenities you were talking about?
Viventi: Yes, amazing. And it isn’t just the airports – the manufacturers are developing new aircraft. The new business jets are able to utilize smaller facilities. It’s a confluence of improvements to the airports and improvements in the aircraft design that makes flying more and more accessible on every front.
Burkhead: Are they building comparable size and range jets that use shorter runways now? I know we’re building bigger passenger aircraft and the big airports have to have longer runways.
Viventi: Well, the general aviation jets are becoming more efficient. Turbine powered aircraft are becoming more available in single engine setups. A popular aircraft, for example, is a Pilatus single-engine turbine turboprop aircraft. You can get that aircraft in and out of most airports. It used to be the sole territory of a King Air B200 or CT90. Now you can get a single engine turbine aircraft in and out of all these airports. Much more affordable, and they’re very modern aircraft, very popular. Those type of aircraft are being more and more utilized in the smaller airports.
Burkhead: You’re (Rocky Mount-Wilson) just beyond that circle that we call the Golden Halo, which refers to commute distance of less than an hour from a major metro area. You’re slightly more than an hour from research triangle central – maybe an hour from Raleigh, but fifteen or twenty minutes longer from Durham or Chapel Hill. That’s beyond the distance that most people want to commute. If I’m coming in on my company plane, why wouldn’t I stay at RDU? They have hotel’s, central access, and restaurants there.
Viventi: Companies aren’t expanding their facilities in the middle of downtown anymore. They’re building them on the periphery, where the transportation networks are. For instance, in Raleigh, you’re seeing more and more development along I-540 and the toll road. That’s where people desire to live. The demographics are better. The schools are better. The land is less expensive, and so the reliever airports are located in those areas.
Burkhead: If I’m coming into RDU I’ve got an hour’s drive or more if my plant is near Rocky Mount, Tarboro, Wilson or other points east. It would seem to me that it’s a no-brainer to land in a safe, well-managed airport near the business and save a lot of time. Also, that would be a magnet for economic development. I want to put my plant somewhere convenient.
Viventi: It is a magnet, and some other place like Zebulon – which is well inside your Golden Halo – would also be a great candidate because it’s halfway between here and RDU, and they can use either airport. They can use RDU for passenger service abroad, and they can use Rocky Mount-Wilson for business travel. Either way, they’ve got the option. The key is having an airport located near a major highway corridor. Our airport happens to be located right in between I-95, 64, and 264, so it’s easily accessible either way, to the east coast, to Raleigh, down to Greenville. Soon it will be very accessible to the Norfolk area.
Burkhead: As you know Dion, we try to keep these posts under an eight-minute read, and we’re getting close. We’ve spent most of our time talking about the value of local airports to regional economic development. The second part will concentrate more on the future of local airports. Can we wrap this up with one thought about your day to day challenges?
Viventi: Well, the biggest challenge and opportunity is to be able to address the needs of the broader community that depends on our airport. Sometimes they’re conflicting needs. But there is always an opportunity when everyone has the same long-range vision. That’s the way I look at it. If there are conflicting needs we iron out a solution.
Burkhead: Dion, thank you for your time and for sharing your experience with our readers. Part 2, which focuses more on the future of local airports, and how branding can be a powerful tool for helping airports grow, will be posted in the next few weeks. For readers who may want to know more about The Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport, the website is www.krwiairport.com.
For more information about BBG, or to sign up for regular delivery of these posts, go here: http://bbgintegrated.com/contact/