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A Mountain Between Them: The Airports of Charlottesville and Staunton, Virginia
Situated on either side of one of the Appalachians many lengthy mountain chains, the airports of Charlottesville, Va. and Staunton, Va. have competed for personal pride and service. But only being located slightly over 30 minutes apart, the demand for the towns of over 20,000 and 40,000 have led to a wildly different road for route maps and competition. However, for both concrete landing strips, the ever-changing scenery for airline operations has not made life easy in the Virginia mountains.
On the eastern side is the much larger of the two airports, Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport. The airport was officially welcomed into the commercial marketplace in the 1950s, when the city lured Piedmont Airlines to begin service to the city using propeller-driven aircraft. Over time the Piedmont route would evolve, adding larger aircraft as Piedmont was seeing success in the market.
Situated off of Seminole Road eight miles north of downtown Charlottesville, the namesake airport has kept its small origins, continuing to use a large portion of non-jetbridged gates at the terminal and lot space for long-term, short-term and economy parking. The terminal’s landside features a single story structure with vaulted ceilings and split halves for arriving passengers to utilize the baggage claim in the south end and airline kiosks and check in for the northern end. Past security the structure divides into two levels with seating for airlines on both levels and an outdoor patio on the upper deck offering views of the airfield. The airport’s terminal faces the lone runway in Charlottesville, runway 3-21 which extends 6,801 feet in length.
On the commercial operations side, Charlottesville offers service to a plethora of eastern destinations. The most popular route out of the airport is American Airlines’ daily flights to Charlotte, N.C. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the Charlottesville-Charlotte flight had racked up over 128,000 flyers per year. American’s flagship route to Charlottesville is anchored with additional services to O’Hare International Airport, La Guardia Airport and Philadelphia International Airport.
To compete with American, Delta offers the second most popular route with nonstop flights to Atlanta and head to head competition against American to La Guardia. Delta has heavily consolidated its route map over the last few years, seeing routes to Cincinnati and Detroit disappear from Charlottesville’s nonstop route map. Delta had seen heavy decreases in traffic to those routes before pulling the plug, with flights to Cincinnati dropping over 9,000 passengers over three years before being discontinued in 2009 while Detroit service would end once the merger with Northwest was finalized and routes were trimmed in 2010. In its last full year of operations, only 12,000 people flew the Delta Connection branded flight to Detroit.
Alternatively, United also operates to the Virginian airfield using United Express with flights to Dulles International Airport outside Washington D.C. and Chicago O’Hare. The latter of these routes competes directly with Americans. Combined, both airlines pulled in 69,000 passengers per year on flights to the Windy City. On the shorter flight to the nation’s capital, United flies 29,000 passengers per year.
Twenty-five miles northwest of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport and 18 miles north of the town of Staunton, the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport is still turning in respectable passenger numbers despite airline swaps and service changes. Although both cities are not in the name, the airport services two communities. The namesake town of Staunton to the south and the 50,000 person inhabited town of Harrisonburg to the north. As part of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, Shenandoah Valley has seen a mix of routes to varying success. At the turn of the century, the EAS contract was operated by Chautauqua Airlines who operated flights US Airways Express to Pittsburgh. The flight would transition to Colgan Air service in 2003 where the airline would switch the destination to Washington-Dulles.
Colgan service would create massive gains for Staunton as passenger traffic to Washington moved the airport from 10,000 to 23,000 passengers. Despite the rise in passenger traffic, the bankruptcy of Colgan Air in 2012 would result in Silver Airways taking up the EAS contract for United.
It was also 2012 that would see the airport welcome two airlines to the town at the same time. Frontier announced flights from Shenandoah Valley to Orlando using Airbus A319s on select days. The route would not prove sustainable, and Frontier would pull the nonstop service just a few months after starting service.
With Frontier dropping service, Silver Airways’ performance started to skyrocket, with traffic at Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport seeing over 38,000 enplanements. However, the suspension of Frontier service and Silver cost-cutting would mark a serious downturn for the small airport.
Silver’s service would fall for the next three years until just 10,000 passengers were using the Saab 340 operations to the largest airport in Virginia. Unsatisfied with the service provided at Staunton, Silver departed the Virginia airport as Via Air moved in to fly operations to both Orlando and Charlotte. However, just one year into service, the airline was deemed not the necessary replacement as Via Air was struggling to capture the magic that Colgan Air had seen a decade earlier. Via Air had maintained the 10,000-passenger count before the city switched to SkyWest Airlines service.
SkyWest would edge out Boutique Air and Southern Air Express, who both offered flights to Baltimore-Washington while Ultimate JetCharters would consider 12 weekly trips to Charlotte.
Under the current contract with SkyWest Airlines, Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport is serviced by an EAS contract worth $3,238,406 to operate the routes to Chicago and Washington D.C. The current contract is for two more years with the expiration coming in March 2023.
Since SkyWest has resumed the airline operations to Washington-IAD and added Chicago O’Hare to the route map service has returned to Colgan levels. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, United Express operated SkyWest flights drew in 34,000 passengers the last two years.
The airport’s current shape has not changed much over the last few years. A single terminal sits on the northern end of the airport and faces south towards the lone runway 5-23. The runway, which runs 6,002 feet in length, can fit the SkyWest CRJ-200s that currently serve it, but that is currently the largest aircraft arriving into the Virginian town. Staunton’s terminal lacks jetbridges, something that Charlottesville beats it out on with a final score of one jetbridge to nil.
While both these airports have suffered hardships with changing and disappearing routes, recent year-over-year data has shown that when both airports are supplied with consistent air service that the routes they are intending to fly are popular.
However, getting to that state has taken years of refining before reaching and closing in on both airport’s respective peaks in recent years. And while the effects of coronavirus have slowed and have led to many questions about what routes will be continued in a post-COVID-19 world, both Charlottesville and Staunton have proven that there are ways to recover from lost service.
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