The Lonesome Pine Airport in Wise County. Photo by Brad Deel.

Virginia airports are preparing for an influx of over $400 million over the next five years from the federal infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law recently. Of the 66 public use airports listed by the Virginia Department of Aviation, 47 are eligible to receive federal funding under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP), among them 19 in Southwest and Southside Virginia. 

“I’m thrilled this bill will provide much-needed federal dollars to strengthen infrastructure in every corner of Virginia, including the Southside and Southwest regions,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who voted for the bipartisan $1 trillion package that aims to modernize the nation’s aging infrastructure, said in an email last week.

Most notably, Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport will receive $15 million, and      Lynchburg Regional/Preston Glenn Field $5 million; smaller regional airfields like Abingdon’s Virginia Highlands Airport, Danville Regional, New River Valley, Blue Ridge and Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport each can expect $1.5 million (see sidebar for a complete list). These amounts come from a formula that considers data like the size of the airport and number of passengers. Nationwide, lawmakers aim to pour a total $25 billion into the aviation industry with the federal infrastructure bill. 

The Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport. Courtesy of Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport.

As a member of the House Transportation Committee, Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, said that he hopes the federal cash influx will help regional airports to expand their base, citing Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional, where plans are already underway to expand the cargo ramp – the airport is currently in the process of closing on a new property acquisition. As far as the funding from the federal infrastructure deal is concerned, officials are in a wait-and-see mode. “We are still waiting on the final guidance to see what the funding can be used for and until we have that information it is difficult to say when we will use the funding and on what projects,” said Bradley Boettcher, director of Marketing and Air Service Development. 

Austin said in an interview Monday that he hopes the federal dollars will help Roanoke, “because more and more people are buying online, which puts more demand on air freight and cargo right now, and if Roanoke expands this capacity it would be great planning.” 

In Lynchburg, local business leaders welcomed the infrastructure dollars. “There are limitations as to what the funds can be used for but what we know now is that eligible projects include runway rehabilitation, taxiway rehabilitation and terminal building upgrades,” said Christine Kennedy, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Lynchburg Business Alliance, which has had a longstanding partnership with the Lynchburg Regional Airport.  

 The advantages of an airport like Lynchburg remain that it is close, convenient and economical, Kennedy said. “Many of our business travelers don’t have the time to drive to a hub city nor do they want the hassle when they can fly from home. Any upgrades at regional airports certainly aid us in ensuring a progressive, quality airport experience with the same advancements experienced at a hub,” she said.

“At the end of the day, the better the infrastructure, the better chance we have of keeping and growing our passenger base. And, we stand a better chance of getting more air service when we fill planes and bring more revenue to the airlines,” Kennedy said.  

Airport funding

Airports in Southwest and Southside Virginia that are eligible for federal funding:

  • Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional: $14,977,645
  • Lynchburg Regional/Preston Glenn Field: $6,497,230
  • Virginia Highlands: $1,480,000
  • Virginia Tech/Montgomery Executive: $1,480,000
  • Danville Regional: $1,480,000
  • New River Valley: $1,480,000
  • Blue Ridge: $1,480,000
  • Twin County: $790,000
  • Mountain Empire: $790,000
  • William M. Tuck: $790,000
  • Dinwiddie County: $790,000
  • Mecklenburg-Brunswick Regional: $790,000 
  • Ingalls Field: $550,000
  • Lee County: $550,000
  • Farmville Regional: $550,000
  • Tazewell County: $550,000
  • Emporia-Greensville Regional: $550,000
  • Lonesome Pine: $550,000
  • Brookneal/Campbell County: $550,000 

Among the smaller fields to benefit from the federal cash injection is Lonesome Pine Regional (LPR) Airport located about three miles northeast from downtown Wise, which is set to receive $550,000. Covering a total of 417 acres, the airport has one 5,200-foot runway and it was once served by Appalachian Airlines, a commuter airline operating briefly in the late 1970s out of Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Tennessee. 

Today, LPR mainly serves medflights and helicopters owned by utility companies that inspect and maintain power lines in the area’s mountainous terrain, being used by “every top employer in Wise County, from Dominion Energy to the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, who own and operate aircraft that they fly into our airport to conduct business here,” said airport manager Jarrod Powers. 

The federal dollars are especially needed at a time when the airport industry is still recovering from the impact of the pandemic. “It’s going to be beneficial, because many airports are aging, they need some serious maintenance,” Powers said. At LPR, a repaving project is currently in progress, and the funding from the infrastructure act will be used for additional updates. “We’re toying with ideas right now,” Powers said. “It’s a great way to get capital improvement projects on the way that otherwise wouldn’t get done.” 

Austin said that he also would like to see airport improvements aimed at reducing passenger leaking to larger hubs like Charlotte or Raleigh at the expense of smaller regional airports. “We know that 7 out of 10 people go to North Carolina to fly,” he said. “But I’m glad somebody in Washington is paying attention, and I hope we’ll address this problem in the future.”

Jack Kennedy, the Wise Court Circuit Court clerk, a past member of the Virginia Aviation Board and a forward-thinking aviation buff, said that airports should take the opportunity and start readying their facilities for what he believes will make future air travel more affordable – eVTOLS, or electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft that use electric power to hover, take off, and land vertically.

“Virginia needs to become more aggressive in its urban and suburban planning for eVTOLS,” Kennedy said. “More rural general aviation airports have a strong future, if seized in this decade.” Companies such as Eviation’s Alice commercial aircraft are creating low cost fuel, greater automation, and are enabling general aviation Airports to become more viable commercial commuter feeders to large hubs, Kennedy said. 

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.