Small airports, big lure; As corporate travelers choose private planes over big carriers, regional airports expand

SANFORD -- When Lee County built an airport in 2000, it wasn't to attract names such as Delta, Southwest or American. The names county leaders had in mind were Caterpillar, Moen and Wyeth.

The Sanford-Lee Regional Airport is the Triangle's fastest-growing general aviation airport, with about 50,000 annual landings and takeoffs, largely because of corporate officers who use the landing strip for business travel.

Likewise, Alamance County's planned $14 million runway extension has nothing to do with providing the people of Mebane with direct connections to the West Coast. The improvements are propelled by a doubling of private aircraft based at the airport by companies such as LabCorp., the Burlington-based medical testing business.

Around the country, corporate flying is taking off as executives increasingly prefer private planes to the uncertainty and inconvenience of the commercial carriers. Many businesses are making general aviation airports a prerequisite for relocations and expansions.

"They all inquire if you have a general aviation airport close by," said Lee County economic development director Bob Heuts. "We're happy to make that checkmark."

None of this is lost on Wake County commissioners who want to build their first airport in the county since Raleigh-Durham International opened in 1943. Although still in the early planning stages, two sites in East Wake are being considered for a $40 million facility with a 6,500-foot runway.

"It's a business tool to bring in good, high-quality businesses and a way to increase the tax base," said Tony Gurley, the commissioners' chairman. "The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority isn't actively trying to discontinue the general aviation that's there, but it's clear they don't plan to expand the general aviation facilities that are out there."

A decision on whether to begin buying land won't be made until next month, but a recent study found that the project could qualify for federal funding that would pay 90 percent of land acquisition and runway costs.

Air traffic controllers like the idea, saying another satellite airport could reduce congestion at RDU during busy periods. Industry recruiters add that it would appeal to companies moving to the eastern side of the county.

Demand is outstripping airport facilities all around the Triangle. Hangars are full at RDU and airports in Sanford, Burlington and Roxboro, as well as in Franklin and Johnston counties. The airports all have waiting lists.

Franklin County officials found how much demand there was this summer when they built hangars for 18 planes and rented 14 of them before the building was finished. Franklin wants to extend its runway 1,000 feet to handle bigger corporate jets.

At Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport, where the number of base planes has nearly doubled to 110 in a decade, county leaders are pushing for a 1,500-foot runway extension for bigger planes. At Sanford-Lee Regional, airport directors are taking bids for 20 more hangars.

Hangars are filling up

Federal Aviation Administration officials say that finding a place to put all the planes is becoming a problem.

"Ground capacity is a real issue," said Scott Seritt, manager of the FAA district office in Atlanta. "Hangars, tie-downs, aprons, there's not enough of it. Aviation is growing regardless of what sector you're talking about."

The demand is a big turnaround from 2000, when corporations sold off planes as the economy slowed; the general aviation fleet sharply declined.

But with the long security lines at public airports that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks, general aviation rebounded. Since 2001, the number of planes owned by businesses has risen 15 percent to 17,087, according to the National Business Aviation Association.

Some of the demand for new runways and hangar space is from pleasure trippers such as the Wings of Carolina, a group of flying hobbyists that moved about 10 planes from Chapel Hill to Sanford. Overall, the general aviation fleet rose 7 percent to 226,422 aircraft between 2002 and 2006, according to the FAA.

Airport directors also are watching a new generation of planes known as very light jets or microjets. The small jets are expected to appeal to businesses because they cost less than half the price of a corporate jet, which starts at about $8 million.

The microjets are just starting to roll off production lines.

Manufacturers include Honda Aircraft, which is building a $100 million assembly plant in Greensboro. Deliveries of the HondaJet, which seats eight and costs $3.65 million, won't be available until 2010, but the company said it already has about 100 orders.

The FAA predicts that 350 microjets will join the general aviation fleet next year and increase at a rate of 400 to 500 per year through 2020. The total general aviation fleet is forecast to jump another 15.6 percent by 2018.

Across the country, airport construction is ramping up to handle the increase. About 15 general aviation airports have been built since 2000, and 10 are under construction, according to the FAA.

In Wake County, commissioners are considering a tract between Wendell and Zebulon where the former Buchanan private airport was located, and land north of Zebulon, just west of the U.S. 64 and U.S. 264 interchange.

A county consultant expects residents who own planes but keep them elsewhere to move to the new airport. About 100 planes are based outside Wake County but have owners who live in Wake, the consultants said.

In Lee County, officials built a new airport because demand had outpaced a smaller field south of Sanford. Since the new Sanford-Lee Regional opened north of town, the number of based planes has tripled, three small businesses have moved to the airport, and taxes and fuel sales make the airport basically self-supporting, said Heuts, the county's economic developer. The $14 million airport was built largely with federal and state funds, with the local share totaling $700,000.

"I won't say it's easy money to have planes in a county, but they don't require schools, they don't require garbage service," Heuts said.

One of the pilots who operates out of Sanford is Alan Sowell, who flies and manages a $30 million Gulfstream jet owned by two Cary businessmen. Traffic on the ground and in the air convinced Sowell to base the plane at Sanford instead of RDU: There was no waiting in line for takeoffs, and the owners avoided traffic tie-ups on Interstate 40 once they had landed.

RDU "is not really that congested, but every minute has dollar value," Sowell said.


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