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...


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.

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