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Into The Air – City Airport Looks Towards Future Goals

As gas prices rise to record highs, summer travelers may become reacquainted with an old friend, the Fayetteville Regional Airport.

The city airport has been steadily sending off thousands of passengers for almost 60 years, but it is often overshadowed by Raleigh-Durham International and Charlotte Douglas International airports.

Grannis Field, however, has a place in history. Public officials see growth there. The number of passengers has been increasing since 2004, says Manager Brad Whited. Mayor Tony Chavonne sees the possibility of direct flights to Washington, D.C., and perhaps Tampa, Fla.

“Growth is possible,” Chavonne said. “The airport and its capacity for growth represent a competitive advantage for Fayetteville.”

In 1949, the Civil Aeronautics Administration gave the go-ahead for the city to officially open its public airport for operations. Grannis Field, as it would become known, cost $250,000 to construct. It was the first grass airfield built with federal money and one of two grass fields in North Carolina to accommodate commercial flights. Piedmont Airlines initially provided eight daily flights for passenger, airmail, freight and express service using 21-passenger DC-3 propeller-driven airplanes. It was named for local developer Ed Grannis who perished in an airplane crash.

Today, the Fayetteville Regional Airport boasts a well-designed passenger terminal, paved taxiways and two asphalt runways able to accommodate jets. And while the Fayetteville City Council is still ultimately responsible for the airport, it appoints a seven-member board to set policies and procedures. Whited is responsible for the airport’s day-to-day operations.

The airport serves a 12-county area and hosts two major airlines: American Southeast Airlines, which operates the Delta Connection to Atlanta, and US Airways Express, which ferries passengers to connecting flights in Charlotte.

Grannis Field is also home to three general aviation companies. These “fixed-base operations” provide an array of support for private and corporate air travel. Five car rental agencies are included among the 18 commercial tenants that contribute to the vitality of airport services and, of course, pay rent to operate at the airport.

For years, public officials have tried to convince airlines in Fayetteville to provide competitive prices and sought-after destinations. One constant request has been an early-morning direct flight to Washington D.C., with an evening return to accommodate one-day business travel, especially for Fort Bragg passengers visiting the Pentagon.

In 1987, the number of passengers topped 230,000. Today, that number has dropped to roughly 160,000. In the mid-1980s, a number of factors affected airline service for Fayetteville. Piedmont’s takeover by US Airways made Charlotte the major hub for flights out of Fayetteville. Then, the state completed the section of Interstate 40 that provides a fast route to Raleigh.

In the 1990s, American Airlines closed its RDU and Nashville hubs and abandoned the Fayetteville market. As a result, the Fayetteville Regional Airport lost 40,000 passengers. And finally, the advent of Southwest Airlines in Raleigh bit deeply into Fayetteville’s base.

Fayetteville continued to lose passengers until a turnaround in 2004 when US Airways agreed to price flights out of Fayetteville and other eastern North Carolina airports within $50 of RDU flights. The result, according to Whited, was a 34 percent increase in the number of passengers. Last year, Delta followed suit, adjusting its fares, increasing the number of local passengers by another 15 percent, Whited said. Delta also added flights to its Atlanta hub.

Whited predicts a slow but constant growth in Fayetteville airport operations. Passenger operations will grow slowly, but those operations are expected to carry larger loads via larger aircraft. General aviation is expected to account for a majority of all airport operation increases, from 62,000 in 2008 to more than 75,000 in 2023.

Despite the market-driven bumps in the road that have affected airline service to the Fayetteville market, there have been accomplishments, Whited said. He points to additional flights, convincing Delta to become an “all-jet” service and the construction of city-owned T-hangars – the first built in 30 years – and upgrades to the terminal as continued signs of progress.

The horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, affected airline service everywhere, including Fayetteville. Small-town airport amenities such as parking in front of the airport terminal went by the wayside. Boarding and screening became more complicated and invasive.

Yet the Fayetteville airport retains a charm that larger airports often lack. “The main reason people should fly Fayetteville is for the convenience,” Whited said, “the easy in and out, reasonable parking rates and a high standard of security without the hassles of larger airports. All (of) that has value. To automatically exclude Fayetteville without taking all those factors into account is a disservice to the customer.”