Residents of Skyline Towers in Baileys Crossroads live where the Washington-Virginia Airport operated more than two decades ago. Consumers shop at Loehmann's Plaza, which 26 years ago was the Falls Church Airport. Just last spring, Woodridge Airport closed so that bulldozers could clear the way for new houses, a fate that threatens at least five other Washington area airports.
The growth of metropolitan Washington has spawned more than bumper-to-bumper traffic, above-average median incomes and development galore. It's also led to a steady loss of airports for corporate and private airplanes.
"We're not replacing the airports that are being swallowed up by the suburbs," said James Wilding, general manager of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs National and Dulles airports. "It's a problem, an issue."
Aviation officials warn that the dwindling number of airports that can be used by general aviation aircraft -- the industry name for jets and propeller craft not owned by commercial airlines or the military -- and the rise in air traffic threatens to crimp the very corporate boom that spawned the crunch.
"Access to a good general aviation airport -- not just a National or a Dulles -- is a big reason companies relocate, especially for people in the manufacturing and sales businesses," said Patricia Weil of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. "D.C. doesn't have much to brag about."
The area's growth has heightened the longstanding tug-of-war between homeowners, who object to airport noise, and executives, who think the area's long-term economic growth rests in part on adequate runways.
"The public thinks these business fliers are spoiled brats, playboys in the sky," said Frank Cowles, an attorney who owns several car dealerships in Northern Virginia and travels frequently to Norfolk, Chicago and New York on business. "There's a lot of misconception. The small aircraft is an essential business tool.
"Everyone wants to fly a plane because the commercial airlines have become undoable," said Cowles, echoing the complaints of many business travelers, who say commercial airlines have schedules that are inconvenient and unreliable for many executives.
Cowles, who has flown his own plane in the area for 36 years, said he has watched the airports he can use get scarcer and scarcer. As a result, the fees he pays at remaining facilities get higher and higher.
A dozen small airports in the metropolitan area have been lost since the 1950s to the builders of housing and office complexes surrounding the District. That has cut by half the number of local airports for general aviation aircraft, which the FAA estimates number 210,000 nationwide.
The shortage of landing strips has become especially severe in the last 10 years as the influx of new companies and the growth of business complexes in surrounding communities has accelerated.
The problem is one that many big cities face, particularly in the Northeast, according to the officials at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. But nowhere is it more acute than in the D.C. area.
Most of the airports that have closed here could not handle even the smallest corporate jet, let alone the larger aircraft used by giants such as Gannett Co. Inc. or Mobil Corp. Nonetheless, each airport that closes increases the demand at remaining general aviation airports, raising parking and landing costs.
Robert Grow, a spokesman for the Washington/Baltimore Regional Association, which promotes the area to investors and businesses, said the group is not overly concerned about the shortage. "We haven't looked at it. I don't see it as a problem frankly," he said.
But many executives and aviation experts think otherwise. "Closings just add to the overcrowding at existing facilities," said Spencer Dickerson, vice president of the American Association of Airport Executives. "It's an issue of supply and demand. Rates are going to be raised as a consequence."
The area lacks the general aviation airports of such cities as Dallas/Fort Worth, Miami and Atlanta, aviation trade groups say.
When Mobil decided earlier this year to move its headquarters to Northern Virginia from New York, finding adequate facilities for its fleet of jets was of key concern, the company said.
Mobil solved the problem by joining with Gannett, MCI Corp. and four other major companies with headquarters in the area to pay for the construction of new hangers at Dulles that will be used exclusively by the companies.
But while large corporations can afford to build their own facilities or pay the rising fees to land and park at National, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International, individual executives and smaller businesses often cannot. They find they are being crowded out of the market.
Since 1984, nearly 150 airports have closed nationwide, according to the FAA. Two factors are at work: Real estate prices around major cities have soared, making it more profitable to sell the large amounts of land required by airports and too expensive to expand and upgrade existing facilities. In addition, liability insurance has become scarcer and more expensive.
At the same time, demand for general aviation airports is up. Membership in the National Business Aircraft Association, which represents corporations that own aircraft, has doubled since 1975 to 2,900. The number of individuals who own aircraft for business travel has climbed at a similar pace.
The FAA estimates that one-third of general aviation aircraft are used for business travel, but in crowded areas such as Washington the number is much higher. Nearly all general aviation aircraft at National, for example, are used for business, airport officials say.
"There are more people flying their own single-engine airplanes for business than there are people chauffered by corporate jets for business purposes," said Bob Warner of the National Association of State Aviation Officials.
National limits takeoffs and landings of general aviation craft to 12 per hour, compared to 48 takeoffs and landings for commercial and commuter airlines. BWI and Dulles have no such restrictions, airport officials say.
Even so, trade groups for smaller craft agree with airport officials that large airports such as National, Dulles and BWI should continue to focus attention on commercial airlines and larger corporate jets. Owners of smaller craft argue that, whether communities like it or not, providing adequate facilities for smaller aircraft at smaller airports is an important ingredient to a region's ability to attract new companies.
"Many general aviation pilots just don't want to mix with the large commercial jets and the traffic at busier commercial airports," said Linda Green, a spokeswoman for BWI.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority said that general aviation landings and takeoffs at National have increased 6.7 percent in the last 12 months, reflecting increased demand for the convenience of an airport that is close to the center of the District and has good ground transportation to surrounding areas.
In the same period, however, general aviation traffic at Dulles slipped 27 percent. Officials say the likely explanation is that takeoffs and landings have increased 59.8 percent for major airlines and 50.2 percent for commuter airlines -- increases that have crowded out smaller craft.
The surrounding metropolitan area now has a dozen or so general aviation airports. But the list gets shortened to a handful when whittled to general aviation airports that have runways long enough to handle small corporate jets: Leesburg and Manassas in Virginia, and Frederick in Maryland.
None has good ground transportation to the District, a drawback for busy executives. "Getting in and out of the airports is very important," said Cowles.
Frederick, for example, is 40 miles from downtown Washington, a trip that could take two hours or more during rush hour. From Manassas Airport to the District, "ground transportation is practically nonexistent," said Bernie Menninger, director of operations for one of the companies that provides fuel and servicing for aircraft there.
The privately owned, publicly used airports in the area that are not eligible for federal funding are hardest hit by the rising cost of land and insurance, but municipal airports also feel the pinch.
Privately owned Woodbridge Airport in Virginia is the latest victim. At least five Maryland airports, some private and some public, are threatened: Montgomery County Airport, College Park Airport, Lee Airport near Annapolis, Washington Executive Airport -- better known as Hyde Field -- and Prince George's Airpark.
Dulles and BWI are expanding facilities for general aviation. In Virginia, two municipal airports are thriving: Manassas is expanding, and Leesburg is upgrading its runways to handle all types of corporate jets.
"Our position is that the general aviation airports stimulate economic development in the community," said Cliff Burnette, state aviation planner for Virginia, who acknowledges that that overcrowding has become a problem.
"We're searching to build another general aviation airport in Northern Virginia," he said, but he added that finding an affordable site is "a big project." He estimated that a new facility cannot be completed for at least five years, given environmental impact considerations and the potential for resistence from homeowners.
Cowles and other area business fliers worry that the efforts will be too little too late, and that not enough thought is being put into creating a major airport for smaller aircraft.
The shortage could eventually cut into the metropolitan area's ability to attract new business and jobs. For example, Prince William County supervisors are pinning hopes in part on the Manassas Airport to attract new business to the area around the IBM facility there.
Xerox has had a major division near Leesburg Airport since 1972. "Air transport was probably the most important factor in picking this spot," said Xerox spokesman Cate MacEnnis, referring to the Leesburg and Dulles airports and to the ability of the company to build on-site landing pads for helicopters.
These outlying communities are counting on smaller service companies -- not just corporate giants -- to boost the area economy. If their airports become too crowded, the facilities that were a lure could become a liability, aviation trade groups warn.
Government help is the only solution, trade groups and individual pilots say.
The federal government could designate more of the general aviation airports in the metropolitan area as "reliever airports" -- those that relieve traffic from major airports such as BWI and National. The designation would make them eligible for federal money to expand and upgrade their facilities for all types of small craft, including jets.
"It's pitiful," said a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. "The FAA sits in our backyard, and we have perhaps the worst reliever airport system in the nation. It all boils down to planning. I feel that that's the bottom line."
Ted Mathison, administrator of Maryland State Aviation Administration, which runs BWI, said planning is not the problem. "Public opposition to the construction of new airports" is the biggest barrier blocking construction or expansion of airports. Plans for new general aviation airports in Charles and Prince George's counties in Maryland were killed by local opposition.
A different kind of governmental participation could be used, some aviation experts contend. State, county or city governments could seek joint operating agreements with military airports in the area to permit the facilities to be used in part as a general aviation airport.
Charleston International Airport in South Carolina is used by both the Air Force and the city. In the Washington area, Davison Army Air Field is the likely candidate for such an arrangement, aviation officials say. Andrews Air Force Base, which would be ideal for a joint military and civil aviation use, is far less likely to be considered because the White House fleet is kept there.
Until more general aviation airports are built or those that exist are expanded, the pressure to raise fees is likely to continue.
Monthly parking fees at National have increased twice since 1980, hitting smaller companies hardest. For a typical 12,000-pound turboprop aircraft, the monthly fee for hanger parking is $1,450, up from $1,150 in 1980.
At BWI, where officials estimate that 60 percent of the general aviation aircraft activity is business related, the increase has been more dramatic. In 1977 a 12,000-pound craft paid $50 a month to park. Today the fee is $20