Anyone traveling through New Castle County this month might notice new highway billboards advertising something called Wilmington Airport.
No, the ads are not promoting a new facility.
They are part of an “awareness” campaign for the state’s largest civil airfield – one that just happens to have a rather fluid name.
“Technically, the name is still the New Castle County Airport,” said James Salmon, a spokesman for the Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA). “But almost everybody who works there, as well as people outside of Delaware, still call it the Wilmington Airport.”
The DRBA, a bi-state government agency that manages the airport under a 30-year lease with New Castle County, refers to the facility as New Castle Airport on its website.
Some outside businesses that support operation, meanwhile, call it Greater Wilmington Airport.
Frontier Airlines – which provided commercial airline service there until June – called it Wilmington/Philadelphia Regional Airport.
And the International Air Transport Association – a trade group made up of 260 airlines – refers to it simply by the three-letter code ILG.
“At some point soon, we’re going to have to come to grips with all the alternate names out there through a re-branding effort,” Salmon said. “But we’re not there yet.”
For now, he said, the DRBA is focused on promoting what goes on inside the 1,250-acre airport, rather than the name out front.
Late last month, the DRBA paid about $35,000 to put up the three billboards in Delaware – including sites on southbound Del. 141 near New Castle, northbound I-495 near Edgemoor and northbound I-95 near Newark. A fourth is located just over the state line on U.S. 322 in Pennsylvania.
Designed by the Wilmington agency Deardorff Associates, the advertisements consist of single-sentence messages, such as “An amazing amount of business takes off here,” and “Helping the Delaware economy fly,” laid over images of airplanes or a listing of businesses at the facility.
One includes the words “industry,” “jobs,” “development” and “revenue” underneath the message, “We’re a lot more than just planes.”
“It’s a way for us to get our story out there – a story we don’t often tell and one the public might not be aware of,” said John Sarro, the DRBA’s airport marketing manager.
That story, he said, is about the airport’s economic impact in New Castle County and its role as an engine of job creation.
“Many people who drive by every day may not understand what goes on here other than passenger service,” he said. “They may not know about the jobs that are here or the economic development.”
When the DRBA took over the airport from the county in 1995, the facility was wallowing in debt. Today, the airport is a profitable enterprise with several new or upgraded buildings.
A 2013 economic impact study commissioned by DelDOT found that businesses at New Castle Airport – as it identified the facility – directly employed more than 1,600 workers, with another 700 indirectly supported by those companies.
The total economic impact of the facility at that time, the study found, was $240.5 million a year – resulting in an annual state and local tax contribution of $10.5 million.
Yet those numbers were down from a similar study conducted in 2007, with employment supported by the airport having slid 5 percent and total economic impact down by 13 percent.
That followed a similar trend recorded at two of Delaware’s three general aviation airports and most of the state’s six smaller public-use airports as those facilities continued to recover from the 2008 recession.
The loss of Frontier
New Castle Airport suffered another hit this summer when it officially lost Frontier Airlines.
After two years of providing commercial passenger service out of Delaware, the Denver-based airline abruptly ended service there in June – even while expanding its routes at Philadelphia International Airport.
A spokesman for the airline claimed serving the state was no longer a “profitable operation” for Frontier.
Airport general manager Stephen Williams contested that claim, pointing to federal data that showed a record number of passengers using the airport in 2014 and average flights at more than 80 percent occupancy at the start of 2015.
Regardless, Frontier became the seventh airline to give up on commercial passenger service at the airport since the 1960s, when it was called the Greater Wilmington Airport.
The loss also left Delaware as the only state without commercial passenger service.
While some airlines have thrived by servicing smaller airports, New Castle’s geographic location may put it at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting those carriers, said Jay Sorensen, president of the IdeaWorks Company, an airline consulting firm based in Milwaukee.
“I would guess that [New Castle Airport] isn’t struggling because it’s small, but because it’s small and next to two very big markets in Philadelphia and Baltimore,” he told The News Journal in May.
The DRBA, meanwhile, is still hoping to attract another commercial airline to New Castle.
“We’re always talking to commercial carriers and they’re always talking to us,” Williams said. “That’s a pot that’s always on simmer.”
More than commercial flights
Salmon insisted the current advertising effort is not a response to Frontier’s departure.
“The two things are not at all related,” he said. “We planned this well before they pulled out.”
While commercial air service is important because it brings people and revenue to the airport and the local economy, the facility is much more than passenger flights – something the DRBA is hoping to highlight with its current billboard campaign.
“An airport is a balance of many activities,” he said. “We’re working to maintain that balance, while making people aware of the many things that go on behind the fence here.”
He noted the airport is home to four fixed-based operators – companies that provide hangar space, fuel, basic maintenance and charter services to the nearly 70 corporate jets and more than 200 privately-owned propeller aircraft based there.
One of those companies – Dassault Falcon – also operates an aircraft service center where corporate and privately-owned jets receive maintenance, repairs, interior refurbishments and new paint jobs.
Textron Aviation – formerly Hawker Beechcraft – leases a hangar at the airport where the company operates a regional aircraft maintenance facility with close to100 employees.
And Flight Safety International operates a training facility there, where more than 200 workers help teach 5,000 corporate jet pilots and maintenance technicians each year. Those students travel to New Castle from around the world to receive instruction on 16 flight simulators – one of the largest of the 50 learning centers the company operates worldwide.
Several of those companies, however, said they were unaware of the DRBA’s efforts to promote their businesses.
And the owner of one questioned the thought process behind the effort.
“It’s not going to do us any good at all to advertise here when most of us at the airport depend on transient customers,” Aero-Taxi owner Dirk Dinkeloo said.
“The billboards say, ‘look at me,’ but don’t really say what goes on at the airport and they aren’t going to convince anyone to invest in a jet,” he said. “I don’t know if the DRBA doesn’t feel appreciated, but I’d rather they spent the money paving more runway.”
The DRBA is undertaking improvements at the airport, thanks in part to federal funding made available by Frontier’s presence at the facility.
Airports with at least 10,000 annual boardings are eligible for up to $1 million a year in entitlement grants from the Federal Aviation Administration, while those without are eligible for only $150,000.
Those grants are helping to fund airfield improvements, including a $4.6 million renovation of Taxiway Bravo – one of 10 at the airport – is scheduled to be completed in November. Meanwhile, the DRBA is funding a $3.7 million expansion of the terminal parking lot that will add 200 more spaces by next fall.
The current billboard campaign – which coincides with the DRBA’s 20th anniversary of operating the airport – is set to expire this fall, with two of the advertisements coming down at the end of October, followed by the other two in late November.
But Stephen Williams, the airport general manager, said future efforts are being planned to further educate the public about the thriving businesses at the airport.
“We’re actually looking at sponsoring events having to do with leisure and education,” he said. “That includes promoting all of the careers in the aviation industry that young people may not be aware of.”
That type of event has been held at Sussex County’s airport each of the last seven years.
This year’s Wings and Wheels festival – a combination air and car show – is expected to draw more than 8,000 people to Georgetown on Oct. 2-3. The event will include an Aviation Education Day where high school students will get a chance to talk with employers in the state’s aviation industry.
While the airport in New Castle County seeks to pursue similar programs, it remains to be seen whether the DRBA also will follow the downstate airport’s recent rebranding campaign.
In June, the former Sussex County Airport was renamed Delaware Coastal Airport – a moniker county officials say better captures the facility’s popularity among tourists.
“A name change is something we’ve discussed from time to time,” said Samuel E. Lathem, one of six DRBA commissioners appointed by Delaware’s governor.
“It’s not anything we’ve talked about lately,” he said. “But the idea is out there.”