Pilots of small planes should have more places to land in the Washington area by the mid-1990s, now that officials have picked a new airport site in Stafford County and two other local airports are expanding.
After years of political sparring, a committee of Stafford and Prince William officials selected a site last week just west of Interstate 95, about 40 miles south of the District. Federal and local officials expect the new airport to relieve National Airport and spur economic growth in Stafford County, eastern Prince William and Fredericksburg.
Manassas Airport, the busiest general aviation airport in Virginia, could see major improvements. FAA Administrator Joseph Busey agreed last week to equip and staff a control tower there at an estimated first-year cost of $1 million, if state and local officials build it.
Plans to expand a general aviation airport in Carroll County, Md., which relieves Baltimore-Washington International Airport, also are underway.
The Baltimore-Washington area has long faced a dearth of general aviation airports, particularly "reliever airports" designed to attract corporate jets and other private planes away from the large commercial airports.
Washington's three regional airports have nine reliever airports, including facilities in Leesburg and Frederick. In the New York area, 37 small airports act as relievers for the three major airports, said Federal Aviation Administration Eastern Region spokesman Duncan Pardue.
Expanding suburban sprawl has exacerbated the Washington area problem, claiming small airports in Woodbridge and Alexandria and threatening several small Maryland facilities.
"A lot corporations locate to an area based on the proximity to a reliever airport," said Patricia Weill, spokeswoman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilot's Association. The nation's 215,000 general aviation planes represent 98 percent of its aircraft, she said.
If the Stafford facility gains local and federal approval, the FAA would pick up 90 percent of its projected $49 million cost, with state and local governments each picking up 5 percent. Authorities expect the airport to be open within three years of funding.
Not everyone favors the Stafford project. Republican state Sen. John Chichester, who represents Stafford and part of Prince William, has opposed the site, preferring a less costly one on the Rappahannock River.
"The one they chose was the worst location of them all," Chichester said, calling the project "a gross misuse of public funds."
The river site probably would not qualify as reliever -- and priority federal funding -- because it is too far from Washington, said Robert Mendez, FAA's district office manager.
Reliever airports are defined as those that are close enough to commercial facilities to reasonably attract some of their small-plane traffic, provide instrument landing capabilities and have lighted runways.
The National Business Aircraft Association's 7,000 members list National as the airport they visit most frequently, said E.H. Haupt, the association's airport manager.
Manassas Airport could get a used control tower from Centennial Airport near Denver. The Virginia Department of Aviation is prepared to pay 80 percent of an estimated $240,000 needed to buy and move the tower to Virginia, said department director Kenneth A. Rowe.
A tower would make the airport safer in bad weather and more attractive for corporate jets, said Airport Manager Ollie Cramer.
"It means everything to the airport," Cramer said. Waiting for "the tower is like waiting for Christmas when you are about 3." A nearby commuter rail station on a planned District-bound line also is expected to make the airport more appealing to private plane owners.
Manassas Airport serves as a reliever for Dulles International Airport, where general aviation traffic rose 13.2 percent in the 12 months ending in July, according to Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority figures.
In Maryland, Carroll County and FAA officials have approved an $8 million project to build a new 4,400-foot runway, 1,200 feet longer than the existing one. Construction is expected to begin next year, a spokeswoman said.