Dulles may close runway for inauguration’s arrival of private planes


Landmark Aviation at Dulles International Airport is expected to be busy during President Obama's upcoming inauguration. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)
January 16, 2013

Most will come by train, by foot or by bus. More than a few, though, will arrive in inaugural Washington by private plane.

And the region’s biggest airport is looking to roll out the concrete carpet for the high-flying arrivals. Officials at Dulles International may close the airport’s westernmost runway to accommodate hundreds of private planes expected to descend on the region over the next few days.

After all, those Gulfstreams and Learjets will need a place to park while their passengers are in town for the inaugural festivities.

Airport officials expect 300 to 600 arrivals in the three-day period leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration on Monday. That’s down slightly from 2009, when there were about 700 landings, which was more than double the previous record, set during President George W. Bush’s second inauguration.

For those flying commercial in or out of Dulles in the coming days, officials say say there is nothing to worry about. Should they opt to close a runway, it won’t disrupt other airport operations because the westernmost runway being enlisted for private-plane parking is only used when Dulles experiences heavy traffic like that expected for the inauguration.

Private fliers will be arriving in a range of planes — Gulfstreams, Learjets and Piper Senecas — sleek craft that seat as few as eight passengers. That said, Dulles can and has accommodated large private jets in the past, including the occasional 747 or 777, which are often chartered to fly sports teams, airport officials say.

According to early estimates, 600,000 to 800,000 people are expected to attend Obama’s second inauguration. Although that’s fewer than the 1.8 million who attended in 2009, it will still provide a nice windfall for local businesses — not to mention the airport authority, which stands to make money from landing and parking fees.

John Hovis and his staff at Landmark Aviation — one of two companies that serves private, or general aviation, flights at Dulles — are ready.

Hovis, a genial, dapperly attired gentleman, is a veteran of big-deal Washington events — G-8 summits and state funerals, such as Ronald Reagan’s in 2004. Just name the VIP, head of state or former U.S. senator, and there’s a good chance Hovis has seen him or her.

This will be his fifth inauguration since he joined the company in the 1990s. And he’s picked up on a few partisan differences in the way many folks travel: Democrats tend to “carpool” in their private planes, while Republicans are more likely to fly on their own. Of course, in these days of enhanced environmental awareness, there are exceptions to every rule.

Hovis said Landmark is expecting about 250 flights in the days leading up to the festivities — more than four times the 60-flight-a-day-average. That number could increase because when it comes to travel by private jet, last-minute bookings are part of the appeal.

For a guy who sees his share of big names on a weekly basis, inaugurations are still pretty exciting for Hovis.

“You get to see everyone,” he said.

Indeed. Want to spot Oprah Winfrey? Brad Pitt? They’ve all passed through Landmark’s well-appointed lounge area, done in calming charcoal grays and fitted with a fireplace and giant flat-screen television.

In a nod to the region’s main industry, the walls are decorated with presidential photos — including shots of Obama and Bill Clinton at their inaugurations, dancing with their wives — just as one might expect the lounge at the airport in Silicon Valley to display photos of Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and other tech titans.

But the excitement and extra business doesn’t come without pressure, he said. Hovis and his staff know that first impressions matter and that those who travel by private plane expect a flawless transition once they land.

“It can be stressful,” said Michelle Forde, a Landmark customer service representative.

Bill Freeman, owner of an apartment management company in Nashville, will be among those arriving at Dulles for the inauguration. He and his wife, Babs, plan to fly in Thursday. Four years ago, they flew commercial to Washington for Obama’s first inauguration, but this time, they’ll be their own pilots in their King Air 200.

“This is like the Super Bowl for us,” he said. Among the events Freeman is looking forward to — a Friday brunch at the White House.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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