The Manassas City Council voted unanimously Monday to bring commercial flights to the Manassas Regional Airport. Passenger flights are expected to get off the ground sometime in the next two years with Florida destinations likely.
After holding two public hearings, the city council took the vote at Jennie Dean Elementary School well aware that residents had concerns about noise, traffic and air pollution associated with additional aircraft flying in and out of the airport, which is now open to only private planes.
“Change is hard, but it can be done,” Mayor Michelle Davis-Younger (D) told the crowd at the meeting. “This city is moving forward. This city is growing. People are coming here by the droves. Businesses want to move here. We have to be ready for it.”
Lyle Sebranek was one of about 25 speakers at the July 24 public hearing who were about evenly split in support or against the commercial flights. Sebranek told the city council he has lived on Chevalle Drive – “as close as you can get” to the airport’s runway – for 40 years with his family. Years ago, there were very few flights but “then came the larger business-type aircraft,” he said.
Sebranek urged the council to consider the quality of life of the residents who live around the airport and pause the approval to perform a preliminary noise assessment.
“Jets departing an airport make noise. Lots of it.” he said. “They’re noisy regardless of what people say.”
Residents of the Great Oak subdivision located across from Va. 234 from the airport voiced similar concerns.
“The sound is an issue,” said Wilson Lee who resides on Aspen Wood Court. “This has to be thought out. Your neighbors in the community deserve more time.”
Manassas residents Brian Nace and Cheryl Macias said the plan would move the city forward. Adding commercial flights “seems like a very natural step to increase the city’s profile,” Nace said.
“It’s our next step,” Macias said, stressing that the proposal would “elevate the visibility of our city,” bring economic development and produce jobs. “It’s largely a no-brainer,” she said.
Brandon Burton, also a Manassas resident, praised the plan for its convenience: “How amazing would a 10-minute trip to the airport be?”
After more than 90 minutes of public comments, Vice Mayor Pamela Sebesky (D) asked Avports about specific concerns raised by residents, including the possibility of cargo flights using the expanded airport and increased traffic.
Andrew King, Avports spokesperson, said that “cargo service is not contemplated in the franchise agreement.”
Commercial passenger service “will be our focus,” he said, noting that “from a purely practical perspective, there’s no room for cargo service at those facilities nor are we able to build facilities for that.”
With regard to traffic, King said traffic is always a concern “from both a neighbor perspective and from a business perspective.” He said Avports is committed to helping with traffic mitigation in the area.
“Traffic is a major concern for any airport at any time,” King said. “If people can’t get to the airport because traffic is backed up, then airlines tend to not be happy if they can’t fill their seats.”
Even prior to the franchise agreement’s approval, King said Avports has already engaged in conversations with city and Prince William County officials about traffic concerns. Traffic mitigation is also required by the Federal Aviation Administration as part of an environmental study that will be completed during the airport’s “PART 139 certification,” King said.
In a lengthy discussion before the vote, several city council members acknowledged there would likely be “growing pains” associated with the change but said the area’s population is growing and the airport needs to accommodate it. Commercial airlines have been envisioned as part of the airport’s future for more than three decades.
Council members also thanked residents for their “passionate” engagement in the process. “It sent us to research … to other actions, and it made us follow through on our due diligence,” Councilman Ralph Smith (D) said.
Sebesky said she heard from many constituents and understood it was a controversial decision. “We’ve been asked if we’ve done our due diligence. Comments that have been made by this council clearly show that due diligence has been done, that lots of questions have been asked of all involved in this project,” Sebesky said. “Therefore, when we cast our votes, it can be made with confidence, not with questions about what may or may not have been said or done.”
Councilman Tom Osina (D) said when he looked into traffic concerns he learned that the county is already aware of the planned expansion of the airport and since the bowtie interchange at the Cloverhill intersection is still in the planning phase, changes can be made to accommodate anticipated traffic growth. He also said that other local roads have the potential to be widened to alleviate congestion if necessary.
With regard to potential negative environmental impacts, Osina said that he was satisfied that the “extensive environmental analysis” conducted by the FAA as part of the certification process to allow commercial traffic at the airport “will be thorough to make sure that moving to expanded flights can be done at Manassas Airport.”
He said airport noise, like other noises such as air conditioning and fireworks, is common.
“We accept them for living in a suburban environment,” Osina said.
“I know there will be negative consequences. There will be more noise.” Councilman Mark Wolfe (D) said after he made the motion to approve the project. “I will hear it along with everyone else.”
“I will assure you … in the next 30 years another million people will live in Northern Virginia,” Wolfe said. “That airport will grow, and there will be more planes and more flights and more noise at that airport.”
“This is quite an added benefit for our city,” Councilmember Theresa Coates Ellis (R) touted the new jobs and educational opportunities the expanded airport will bring. “We have always said that out airport is a hidden gem for our communities and the surrounding area,” she said. “Now it is time for our gem to shine.”
The decision means Avports will lease the airport terminal for 40 years and pay to construct a 35,000-square-foot addition to the current facility, which was built in 1996. Any physical improvements to the terminal would remain city property.
The expansion of the airport will come in two phases. In the first phase, the airlines will use the existing terminal with minor upgrades, including new security checkpoints, to support about six to eight new commercial flights a day.
It’s not clear how long Avports would operate under the first phase of improvements. During the second phase, the terminal will be fully upgraded and expanded to meet demand, which is expected to be about 24 to 30 flights per day.
At full build out, air traffic volume is expected to increase by less than 11% of current traffic, Avports’ proposal said. Avports said it plans to operate four to six gates and aims to offer “seven-minute curb-to-gate service” to passengers.
Avports could announce carriers and likely destinations within the next six to 18 months, King said in an interview after the vote. Commercial carriers “are already actively courting us,” he said.