WEYERS CAVE — Greg Campbell is reporting that the skies around Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport are indeed friendly nowadays.
Campbell, the airport’s executive director, said based on data from the first full year of service by SkyWest Airlines, the number of passengers flying in and out of the Weyers Cave airport is reaching all-time highs.
Campbell recently told the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport Commission during his presentation for the airport’s fiscal year 2020 budget that the airport had a 260 percent increase in passenger traffic during SkyWest’s first full year of service compared with a year earlier.
“We’re really making progress, although it has been painful at times,” said Campbell, remarking on the ups and downs the airport has gone through during the past two decades. During that time, U.S. air travel was hit hard in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and then again during the 2007-09 recession.
More recently, though, the airport had to overcome a hit to its reputation, when the carrier contracted in 2016 — ViaAir — failed to deliver in terms of performance and a commitment to offer additional connections.
Campbell, though, reports that SkyWest appears to have helped SVRA overcome that bad experience through its reliable, on-time performance flying daily to two international airports, Chicago’s O’Hare International and Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia.
“It’s exceeded my expectations,” he said of SkyWest’s first-year performance.
Campbell said 2019 should “rank as one of the best years in the airport’s history.”
Perhaps more importantly, the traveling public has really responded to the new service, according to Campbell. He told the commission that based on a survey of 10,000 to 11,000 frequent flyers around the Valley, at least 98 percent said they were aware of SkyWest flights at SVRA.
That appears to have directly resulted in more passengers.
According to data supplied by the airport, traffic dipped to a nine-year low in 2016 with 9,719 passengers boarding a flight at SVRA. After a slight rebound in 2017, passenger traffic returned in 2018 to numbers the airport hadn’t seen since 2013, when more than 22,000 people flew on SkyWest during its eight months of service from Shenandoah Regional.
This year, SkyWest is expected to fly 36,000 passengers through SVRA. That would represent the largest passenger load for any single carrier to ever fly in and out of the airport.
In April 2018, SkyWest began daily service from the regional airport to O’Hare and Dulles. Because of demand, the two-hour trip to O’Hare is now nonstop after initially making a brief stop in Lewisburg, West Virginia, on outgoing and incoming Chicago flights. The Lewisburg stops ended in October, which saw a 55 percent increase in passengers from the previous month, breaking a 20-year record for a single airline flying from SVRA.
SkyWest, based in St. George, Utah, is a fully integrated regional partner of United, meaning once passengers book a flight at the Weyers Cave airport, there is no need for a separate transaction on another United flight if they are traveling beyond O’Hare or Dulles.
The airport commission turned to SkyWest after less than 18 months of service by ViaAir, which officials said failed to live up to the terms outlined in an agreement through the U.S. Department of Transportation by not delivering reliable service. SVRA complained that ViaAir routinely delayed and canceled scheduled flights, and did not live up to a commitment to make connections easier for passengers flying into North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Orlando, Florida-based ViaAir began offering flights at SVRA in November 2016. The carrier’s deal through a contract with the Transportation Department called for 12 flights a week to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The airline also was contracted to provide service to and from Orlando Sanford International Airport in Sanford, Florida.
Through its Essential Air Service contract with DOT, Via was to receive an annual subsidy of up to $3.8 million for providing commercial service at the Weyers Cave airport.
By July 2017, the airport commission had had enough, voting to ask the DOT to cancel the agreement. Federal authorities quickly agreed, which allowed SVRA to enter into a new deal with SkyWest.
In March 2018, Via’s flights to and from Shenandoah Regional came to an end.
The payoff, according to SVRA officials, was immediate.
In the just the first two months of service at Shenandoah Regional, SkyWest’s increased its bookings on a 50-seat Bombardier Canadair Regional Jet from 1,442 passengers in April 2018 to 2,641 in June 2018. By comparison, ViaAir had 1,015 passenger bookings in April 2017 and 1,098 two months later.
“We really got fortunate by landing them,” Campbell said of SkyWest. “The on-time rates are fantastic ... by aviation standards, one of the best.”
The airport markets itself to regional flyers, with about 60 percent choosing to fly in and out of SVRA on business, as a convenient and economical alternative to driving to D.C.-area or other metro airports, especially when taking into account the cost of travel and parking, which is free at Shenandoah Regional.
Maintaining a successful airport, Campbell said, is invaluable to the region “in terms of economic development, tourism, quality of life.”
Looking ahead, he told the commission — which includes appointed representatives for each of its member localities, Waynesboro, Staunton, Harrisonburg and Augusta and Rockingham counties — that the airport will begin work on Phase I capital projects included in its master plan once environmental assessments are completed.
Those projects will include adding to SVRA’s commercial hangar space, which in 2018 generated nearly $600,000 in revenue.
“We’re full, we have a waiting list,” Campbell said.
In addition to work on new corporate hangar, plans in the coming fiscal year also include design and construction of the airport’s “fuel farm,” which will update to 30-year-old facility that holds SVRA’s aviation fuels.
During the previous year, the airport completed a $2 million paving project.
The commission is expected to adopt its $3.45 million budget in June. The fiscal year starts July 1.