Sunday, June 12, 2016

Bruce Thompson: Our new region needs a new airport

GUEST COLUMNIST:  Bruce Thompson

Bruce Thompson, who lives in Virginia Beach, is chief executive of Gold Key/PHR, which builds and operates hotels, including The Main conference center in Norfolk.


I HAVE LONG lamented air service to our region and its constraining impact on our economy and quality of life. Now, with talk of a mega-airport serving a newly defined mega-region spanning Richmond to the Oceanfront, along with the Go Virginia’s plan to promote regional cooperation, this discussion has been energized.

When we think of “regionalism” we ordinarily think of shared services, where all metropolitan and micropolitan areas gain benefits through expense reductions, economies of scale and efficiencies. Typical examples include trash collection, transit, safety and regional jails.

However, when this topic moves to regional economic development and building regional revenues, the discussions become parochial and defensive. That mindset has dominated past discussions about a regional airport.

Leaders in government and business, at both the state and local levels, agree that diversification is key to our future. With new economic opportunities comes the chance to relocate corporate headquarters to a region where the workforce is exceptional and the quality of life superior.

But companies operate globally. They can’t afford to conduct business where air travel routinely involves delays, cancellations and lost luggage because of multiple connections.

In short, we won’t be able to attract new industries to a region where domestic travel, much less international travel, is inconvenient, limited and historically unreliable.

I am often asked about the opportunities for the state and region to grow and expand our tourism base.

Our natural and historic setting makes us an extremely desirable vacation destination for six months out of the year.

The shoulder season and off-season tourism industry will continue to expand as convention and conference facilities and year-round attractions come on line.

However, the growth of tourism will remain limited to geographical regions within an easy drive so long as air travel remains so unreliable.

Meetings and conventions from around the globe typically plan their meetings and conventions in our “off-season” and would find Hampton Roads and the broader mega-region a most desirable destination. These larger groups, with their substantial disposable income, would fill our hotels and restaurants, providing the high-value, low-impact tourism tax dollar every locality seeks.

But in deciding where to go, planners look for ease of access, where the majority of attendees can fly directly, limiting inconvenience and cost while increasing participation.

The limited number of direct flights serving our local airports severely hampers our attractiveness.

Naysayers argue that existing local airports provide financial benefits to their cities. That repurposing existing airports, possibly to cargo terminals, would be costly.

They argue that citizens of this region would not be receptive to travelling a greater distance to a better airport, as people in almost every other metropolitan region routinely do.

An airport located in the U.S. 460 corridor, for example, could serve the region from Richmond to the Oceanfront.

It would be a major undertaking and a costly proposition. But critical infrastructure decisions are always costly.

Aside from economic arguments, quality of life must be part of the discussion.

The residents of cities with underused airports enjoy easy access. For everyone, however, any advantage ends at the terminal gate.

Local flights are often on small regional jets that require at least one connection. These smaller planes have limited luggage space and the fares are pricey. Delays, poor connections and flight cancellations are more than a nuisance.

When planning vacations, I routinely look for airports that offer a direct flight to my destination, even if that means driving to Richmond or D.C. Time, especially family vacation time, is just too precious.

Changes are required to reposition our region to meet the needs and demands of a diverse and robust economy, to enhance our quality of life, and to make the region more attractive. Significant strides have been made in addressing intrastate and regional highway needs both for now and the future. While laudable, it is also time to address connectivity beyond the region and state.

Part of transportation planning, prioritizing and assessment must include the long-term air travel needs of the mega-region. Failure to plan for this would irretrievably relegate our region and the future generations of citizens who live and work here to permanent status as a secondary market. Our region deserves better.

Original article can be found here: http://pilotonline.com/opinion/columnist

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