Manassas prospers after 9/11

 - October 24, 2006, 9:25 AM

Tucked into the southwest corner of the Washington ADIZ lies Manassas Regional Airport (HEF), a bustling, rapidly growing general aviation facility with parallel runways and an FAA-operated control tower, and home to three full-service FBOs, four Part 135 charter operators and numerous other aviation-related companies.

With 880 acres serving as base for more than 400 aircraft, HEF is the largest general aviation airport in Virginia. Runway 16L-34R is 5,700 feet long and Runway 16R-34L provides 3,702 feet. There were 137,000 operations last year, with approximately 2.5 million gallons of jet-A and 100LL sold.

This past spring NextFlight Aviation became the third full-service FBO, joining long-time provider Dulles Aviation, which is on the west side of the airport, and Jet Services on the east.

“The growth we have seen in the last 24 months is kind of outpacing our plan,” said Juan Rivera, airport director. Much of this can be attributed to 9/11, because of the temporary closing of Dulles International Airport to Part 91 operations and their continuing exclusion–for the most part–at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

“During 9/11, we had so many corporate aircraft sitting here all over the place–we had limos backed up left and right, we had senators and congressmen or their aides calling to ask if they could fly out of here to go back home–we were active for about three or four weeks straight,” Rivera recalled. “We had a 200-percent increase in IFR traffic.”

The outcome was that a lot of people used the airport for the first time and continue to use the airport. “I think a lot of people realized that if it happened once it could happen again,” he said. “So I think some decided this would be a good airport from which to operate.”

The FBOs were able to capture and keep some of the market, and the airport established a working relationship with different groups, including some federal security operations. Several organizations inquired about space on the airport for development.

“We were kind of caught with our pants down, in the sense that we had really not done a whole lot of planning,” Rivera said. Although the airport had a 20-year master plan, it was not updated until about two years ago. Within about 24 months, HEF attracted a number of new tenants.

Airport Development

One of the first companies to relocate to Manassas was Aero Solutions, a Bethesda, Md.-based international aircraft broker. The company has proved to be an asset to the airport because it has brought in new business.

Capital Aviation Instrument and Avionics, which was located on the west side of the airport near Dulles Aviation, built a 24,000-sq-ft hangar near Aero Solutions on the east side to install avionics.

That left two lots available in the northeast quadrant of the airport property. Airport Development Group came in and built the hangar that NextFlight took on a 10-year lease, and it is about to complete another 14,000-sq-ft hangar adjacent to that.

“I don’t think you could find an airport of our size that is seeing this type of growth in such a short period of time,” Rivera said. “We came to the point that we had no more area ready to be developed.”

However, there was one L-shaped parcel with water and sewer lines nearby that was ready to go when Atlanta-based FlightWorks proposed building a hangar on the airport.

“We had figured that to develop this little L-shaped area would take four or five years, if we were lucky,” Rivera said. “So  went to the [Manassas] Airport Commission and said, ‘Look, we need to do some development here.’ We did a mini-study.”

The concept of the study, which was completed by April 2003, was that the city of Manassas would develop four pad sites in the northern part of the airport for people who wanted to build corporate-style hangars. The municipal government took out a $1.4 million bond to develop the infrastructure, including a road, water, sewer, electric and gas.

FlightWorks took the first pad site immediately. The next parcel went to Optical Air Data Systems, which was already a tenant in some hangars at the south end of the field. Optical is an R&D company that does work with lasers, and it has contracts involving the Marines’ MV-22 Ospreys and the Air Force.

While the company primarily needed office space, the president is an aviation enthusiast who owns a Corsair, a Stearman, a King Air, a Bonanza and a Huey, and he needed a place to hangar them. “What we found was, right off the bat we had two of our four pad sites taken,” Rivera said.

Optical Air Data Systems developed a 12,000-sq-ft hangar with 18,000 sq ft of office space. FlightWorks completed a 30,000-sq-ft hangar and is now adding approximately 12,000 sq ft of office space. The Manassas facility is to be the showcase for future expansion throughout the country.

“That left us with two pad sites available,” said Rivera. “Frankly, out of nowhere, we got approached by our friends from NextFlight, and they said they wanted to be a full-service FBO and wanted to build a 30,000-sq-ft facility.”

But neither of the last two lots could accommodate what they were planning, so they opted for a new lot five to build a 39,000-sq-ft hangar, a 20,000-sq-ft hangar and roughly 18,000 sq ft of office space, with construction to start in October 2003.

Airport Development Group came back and offered to speculate on an 18,000-sq-ft hangar on lot three and Chantilly Air, a charter company based at HEF, said it would build something in the 24,000-sq-ft range on lot four. The projects are on track to begin late this fall or early spring, according to Rivera.

“The good news is that it took only two of the first four lots for me to be able to pay the principal and interest on the bond,” he said. “So everything that I make off lots three, four and five is just money for the airport.”

Since the preliminary design was finished in April 2003, Manassas has sold all five lots and will add 143,000 sq ft of corporate hangar space. “That’s a lot of corporate hangar space to be built in such a short period of time,” Rivera emphasized. “That leaves me only one area to the northeast to develop, and that is going to require relocating the road.”

That would necessitate another $1 to $1.5 million investment, although it would create space for a giant 440-foot by 260-foot hangar or multiple smaller hangars. Meanwhile, the airport commission is evaluating improving property at the southeast end of the field, which will include a new taxiway and 42 new T-hangars.

Improvement Plans

“Keep in mind we are a general aviation airport and we need to support all aspects of general aviation, to include singles and light twins as well as the corporate traffic,” Rivera said. “To strike a balance, we–the city–will be spending about $2.7 million to develop those 42 new T-hangars, and to date we’ve signed 30 letters of intent.” Work will begin this fall and should be completed by the end of next summer. Work on the taxiway will begin next spring and should be completed in late summer.

With the new taxiway opening up that southeast portion of the airfield, a federal law-enforcement agency already flying out of HEF has approached Rivera about possible expansion of its facilities. The agency is operating a variety of aircraft, including a Boeing Business Jet and a Gulfstream V.

“We have a large contingency of federal law-enforcement agencies out here–not just one, but multiple groups–and I think a lot of that is because of our close proximity to D.C. and Quantico,” Rivera said. HEF also serves a number of state and local law-enforcement units.

That southeast tract will yield five potential corporate pad sites, and a local charter operator that flies Dornier 328Jets has expressed an interest in relocating to a new corporate hangar in that new section at HEF.

Manassas Regional is also home to five active flight schools, which Rivera notes “keeps the tower pretty busy on nice days.” He predicts the east side will see most of the growth in the next five to 10 years, although plans lurk in the background to replace the aging west-side infrastructure, which dates to 1964.

Even the control tower, which is owned by the airport but staffed by the FAA, was trucked to HEF from Denver’s Centennial Airport. Because of the tower’s age and inability to accommodate new ATC equipment, the airport commission wants to build a new one to the west of the present one.

Among the other projects on tap are building a greatly expanded east ramp in front of the east-side airport terminal and the lengthening of Runway 16L-34R to 6,200 feet in about five years.