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...

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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