As the center of mankind’s fastest form of travel, airports inescapably become a web of economic impact for their region. But just what is the region’s main airport — which first opened as Preston Glenn Airport in 1931 — worth to Lynchburg?
The Lynchburg Regional Airport has directly produced 827 jobs and several thousand more in businesses connected to the airport, generating millions of dollars in wages, according to a 2010 Virginia Department of Aviation report.
In 2010, the economic activity fostered by the commonwealth’s 10 commercial airports totaled $20.4 billion, with LYH contributing $109 million to the total, according to report compiled by an ICF International company.
That’s a lot, considering starting in July the airport will not need a subsidy from the city. In other words, those economic benefits for next year will cost the Lynchburg taxpayers no money.
The two economic impact reports from the firm and the state are somewhat aged, but both airport director Mark Courtney and airport finance manager Wes Campbell at LYH said they believe the economic impact would be relatively the same today, for several reasons.
Over the years, the airport has gone from three commercial airlines to just one. This puts it in a precarious position, but the airport is no less active and its commercial carrier, U.S. Airways — owned by American Airlines — has picked up the slack. The airport has six arriving and six departing flights daily.
In September, 81 percent of available airplane seats were occupied. Those ticket sales garnered $110,200 per day last year, according to the airport’s review of tickets.
A lot of that money is owed to U.S. Airways. Courtney estimated it receives tens of millions during the year, but a chunk of it goes back into the airport. For this fiscal year, the airport generated just over $2.5 million dollars, mostly used for airport expenditures.
“This is the first time in years we’ve been self-sufficient,” Courtney said.
The most significant economic impact factor since the studies were conducted, Courtney said, was the growth of Liberty University’s School of Aeronautics at the airport.
The economic impact studies also don’t account for the growth of Liberty University since their publication, Courtney said.
In spring, the school reported it had more than 800 students. LU’s school and its fixed-base operator — which provides commercial airplane services — have grown in recent years. As a separate business, it draws in its own revenues.
For years, LYH received a subsidy from the city, reaching as high as $700,000.
“We gradually paid off all the airport’s debt without incurring our own debt,” Campbell said. “It’s a combination of holding the line on expense” and revenue growth, “chipping away at the subsidy.”
The airport’s economic activity ranged between $109 million and $311 million, according to an independent analysis and the Virginia Department of Aviation report both made in 2010.
For the foreseeable future, that impact may remain about the same. The airport’s greatest generator of revenue is the business from its terminal. Without a rise in ticket sales, bigger airlines are not as motivated to bring new business to the airport. The city can provide incentives to attract those airlines, Courtney said, but the process is complex.
Right now, domestic and international flights must connect through Charlotte from Lynchburg. A 2014 survey of the market showed 48 percent of potential customers leak to competitors in the region, most notably, the Roanoke Regional Airport and the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.