Wednesday, December 4, 2019

How Could We Better Use College Park Airport?

Image by M–NCPPC.
College Park Airport in Prince George’s County, Maryland, is the world’s oldest continually operating airport. Sadly, it’s also likely one of the most squandered public assets in the Washington region. Virtually no one uses it, despite its prime location near transit and the University of Maryland. But with a few commonsense upgrades and the proper public focus, we could change that.

Wilbur Wright originally established College Park Airport in 1909. He used it to train the first United States military officers to fly an airplane. Today, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M–NCPPC), a state agency operating in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, owns and operates the airport and its accompanying aviation museum.

One could not ask for a more ideal location for an airport. It is within a quarter-mile walk of the College Park–University of Maryland rail station, which provides multimodal transit access to WMATA’s Metrorail and Metrobus network, the Maryland Transit Administration’s (MTA) MARC commuter rail, and the future MTA Purple Line light rail. It also sits less than a mile from the University of Maryland’s flagship campus.

College Park Airport. Annotations by Author.
Despite its great legacy and its uber-convenient location, College Park Airport sees only about 3,200 takeoffs and landings annually—less than nine flights per day. By contrast, the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg sees about 48,000 takeoffs and landings annually, or just over 131 flights per day.

What would it take to transform College Park Airport into a more vibrant economic development and transportation engine for the Prince George’s County and the Washington Metropolitan Area?

General Aviation vs. Commercial Service

Currently, the FAA categorizes College Park Airport as a general aviation airport because it has no common carriers offering passenger service to the public between specific locations according to a published schedule, and it has fewer than 2,500 annual passenger boardings (“enplanements”).

General aviation airports serve a variety of passenger-carrying flights, such as skydiving or sightseeing tours, medical transport, air taxi services, private and corporate planes, and charter planes. They also serve non-passenger-carrying aircraft such as those used by flight schools, the military, recreational fliers, and cargo transport.

Airports that have more than 2,500 annual enplanements and have common carrier-scheduled passenger service between specific locations are classified as commercial service airports. Scheduled passenger flights are usually separated from other general aviation services in a separate commercial terminal, because the passengers and baggage on scheduled commercial flights are subject to heightened security screening and safety regulations that do not apply to general aviation flights.

Both commercial and general aviation services use a variety of aircraft sizes—helicopters, small single-engine piston planes, twin-engine business and commuter turboprops, regional jets, and jumbo jets. However, not all airports have the runway lengths and strengths to accommodate all sizes of aircraft.

College Park Airport would likely qualify as a “nonhub primary” commercial airport if it began scheduled passenger service. This means that it would generate at least 10,000 annual (or just over 27 daily) enplanements, but less than the threshold for categorization as a “small hub primary” airport, which is currently around 450,000 annual (or 1,232 daily) enplanements.

At those passenger volumes, College Park Airport would obviously not pose a significant threat to the three nearby large hub commercial airports (Reagan National, BWI-Marshall, and Dulles). However, it would provide some needed additional capacity for short-haul commercial flights at another rail transit-accessible location near downtown Washington, DC.

Longer Runway and Additional Facilities Needed

The airport’s existing 2,600 x 60 feet runway can only accommodate small propeller-powered aircraft such as the Viking Twin Otter or the Pilatus PC-12. To be feasible as a commercial service airport and to enable more options for larger general aviation aircraft, the runway would need to be wider and longer.

As indicated in the above picture, the likely runway expansion path would be southeastward, across the Northeast Branch tributary, toward Kenilworth Ave, to achieve a dimension of approximately 4,500 x 150 feet. This would require careful civil engineering (e.g., construction of a concrete culvert below the runway subgrade) to preserve the water flow in the tributary.

The runway pavement would also likely need to be strengthened to better accommodate double-wheeled aircraft of up to 100,000 lbs. This would permit a broad range of mid-sized 10-12 seat business jets, such as the Cesna Sovereign, as well as large 50-90 seat commercial turboprop aircraft, such as the ATR 42, ATR 72, and Dash 8-400, to service College Park Airport at their maximum takeoff weights.

Billy Bishop City Airport. Photo by PortsToronto.
Although all four of the major U.S. commercial carriers have phased out their turboprop fleets in favor of regional jets, there are some signs turboprops could see a resurgence, given their higher fuel efficiency, lower operating costs, and ability to serve airports with shorter runways.

Even today, smaller U.S. commuter carriers, like Silver Airways, and larger Canadian carriers like Porter Airlines, have significant turboprop operations. Indeed, Porter’s home base, Billy Bishop City Airport in Toronto (pictured above), serves about 2.8 million domestic and international passengers annually—about the volume of an American small hub like Savannah, GA, or Albany, NY. All of those passengers fly on turboprop planes, since Billy Bishop’s longest runway is just under 4,000 x 150 feet.

Funding and Land Are Available

Through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) and Maryland’s Aviation Grant Program, funding for runway and taxiway reconstruction, airfield lighting and signage, apron construction, terminal buildings, and similar improvements (including related planning) at small commercial and general aviation airports is available at up to 95% of the costs.

Fortunately, M–NCPPC already owns and controls the land adjacent to the airport that would be necessary for the development of commercial and enhanced general aviation services at College Park Airport. The current 70-acre general aviation and museum facility could expand to about 125 acres, to allow sufficient space to construct a commercial passenger terminal and ramp, a control tower, and facilities for fixed-base operators (FBO), maintenance, fire and rescue services, aircraft hangars, transient aircraft parking, and visitor and rental car parking.

The State of Maryland and Prince George’s County own some neighboring parcels that could also be dedicated to the airport complex. Other privately owned land adjacent to the airport could be used for hotel construction and other compatible facilities.

If a new commercial passenger terminal is built, it should have at least six ramp spaces for simultaneous enplaning and deplaning. The terminal should be equipped to process international passengers, most of whom would likely be coming from Canadian ports. Instead of expensive jet bridges, the airport could use simple accessible boarding ramps at each ramp space.

Environmental and Security Considerations

Former Mount Rainier councilman Brent Bolin, a community and environmental activist, attorney, and nonprofit executive, sees the potential benefits of expanding services at College Park Airport, but also worries about the potential for adverse environmental impacts, such as the elimination of or restriction of access to parkland and recreational facilities around the Northeast Branch in the area of the airport.

Without question, any major transportation infrastructure project could potentially result in adverse environmental impacts. This is why federally mandated environmental analysis, which evaluates alternatives and considers mitigation options, is part of the process.

It is certainly true, for example, that the airport expansion would result in the loss of some parkland and recreational areas in the immediate vicinity of the airport. However, ample parkland and recreational facilities would remain in easy walking or biking distance. Rerouting the popular Anacostia Tributary Trail around the extended runway is one easy mitigation measure that could be employed to maintain access to those nearby facilities.

Photo by MSP Metropolitan Commission.
Similarly, airport noise is always a serious concern for residents of the area surrounding an airport. Indeed, a National Institutes of Health study describes airport noise as “one, if not the most detrimental environmental effect of aviation.”

Obviously, there is no way to eliminate airport noise completely. However, there are many ways to mitigate the impacts of such noise. One such measure, which is already in place at College Park and Reagan National airports, is to restrict the times that aircraft can take off from the airport. At College Park, takeoffs are generally prohibited between 11:00 pm and 7:00 am.

National security and the potential for terrorism necessarily are priority concerns with airline travel in the National Capital Area. Ever since September 11, 2001, the FAA has established a Flight Restricted Zone within 15 nautical miles of Reagan National Airport. College Park Airport is within that zone and, accordingly, must adhere to certain enhanced security protocols. Pilots flying into and out of the airport must pass a TSA background check.

The FAA and TSA would need to determine whether any additional security measures, akin to those in place at Reagan National, would be needed in connection with scheduled commercial air service at College Park Airport.

How to Make This Happen

It seems almost inconceivable that the idea of expanding services at College Park Airport has not come up for serious discussion before. College Park mayor Patrick Wojahn said that he does not recall any discussions of potential commercial services at the airport during his tenure in city government. Nor has independent internet research by the author yielded any information regarding any recent discussions or studies of the issue. Current airport manager Lee Sommer did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

M–NCPPC completed an airport land use compatibility and safety study in 2000 that found no significant issues in connection with College Park Airport. That study highlighted the airport’s significance to aviation history: “Probably no other field in aviation can boast of such a significant clientele or such an amazing list of achievements as College Park Airport.”

But the airport is more than just a historical artifact. It is a fully operational facility with a prime location near public transit. It is a potential source of jobs and economic development in Prince George’s County. Corporate travelers and tour groups, in particular, would appreciate having a general aviation facility close to DC that can handle larger planes. Likewise, U.S. commuter air carriers and Canadian carriers that operate commercial turboprop planes would appreciate the additional commercial capacity and the proximity to DC that College Park Airport could provide.

Working in consultation with experienced outside aviation planning consultants, the professional planners at M–NCPPC can produce a strong airport master plan with short-, medium-, and long-term benchmarks that meets the community’s increasing air transportation needs, protects its natural resources, promotes neighborhood safety, and appropriately leverages the distinguished legacy and the huge economic development potential of the world’s oldest airport.


  1. The following comment was received via email from Christine Fanning at M–NCPPC:

    Thank you for your thoughtful discussion regarding College Park Airport.

    College Park Airport is truly a national treasure for many reasons including its designation as the oldest continuously operating airport in the world.

    Unfortunately, the events of 9/11 had a major impact on the Airport’s overall usage after it was included in the Flight Restriction Zone. The Flight Restriction Zone is the most highly restrictive airspace in the country and enforces major limitations on pilots and passengers. As a result, the Airport developed and implemented a new strategic direction to expand the focus of the facility beyond air travel to include aviation training, conference and event rentals, fuel service, education, outreach and community engagement – creating a central hub that is starting to take shape.

    After significant investments in the operations building, apron and runway, our airport usage is on the rise with a 20% increase over the past 5 years, largely due to transient operations. Every year, hundreds of organizations use the conference facility and thousands of school children, community group members as well as individuals tour the airport to learn more about aviation. Emerging pilots train on our Red Bird flight simulator and participate in flight training and clubs. In fact, a recent economic impact study on public use airports from the Maryland Department of Transportation found that more than $4.3 million in business revenue was created by activity related to the College Park Airport – including tenants, visitors and support services.

    But we know there’s much more to do. We have plans to expand community access to the exterior grounds so that more people can enjoy the thrill of observing the wonder of flight – including a much more robust interpretation area. We aim to build ‘T-Hangers’ that will allow the Airport to accommodate more planes – increasing usage as well as fuel revenue. Of course, we welcome the opportunity to explore additional ideas that are cost effective, community and environmentally sensitive, and legally possible.

    Perhaps, the greatest lesson of this online exchange, is that we need to do a better job communicating all the various ways that the College Park Airport is a true national, regional and local treasure – as an airport, a meeting space, an education vehicle, a community hub, and an economic engine.

    Christine Fanning
    Natural and Historic Resources Division Chief
    M-NCPPC, Department of Parks and Recreation, Prince George’s County
    6707 Green Landing Road
    Upper Marlboro, MD 20772

  2. My responses to some comments on this article posted on Greater Greater Washington:

    "There’s a strong case that the most economically beneficial thing to do would be to close it and redevelop that land in close proximity to a Metro station."

    One could absolutely make the case for closure and redevelopment -- especially for an airport that has fewer than 9 operations a day. But one could also make a strong case for a more viable and economically productive airport at that location. And given that this is the world's oldest continually operating airport, it would be a shame to see it close.

    "There’s absolutely zero potential for the College Park airport to be anything more than it is now."

    Well that’s certainly not true. A 4,500 foot runway would bring a great deal more potential for enhanced general aviation as well as commercial turboprop aircraft. Billy Bishop is thriving with runways shorter than that—as are many G.A. airports in this country.

    "Beefing up the airport to serve modern GA traffic or commercial flights would also mean destroying the current airfield and much of what makes it ‘historic’."

    Not really. Let’s face it: the “historic” airfield was likely a grass strip, not a 2,600 ft paved asphalt runway. The airport itself is the historic landmark, not the runway. The proposed extension and widening of the existing runway to 4,500 x 150 feet doesn’t change the historic character of the airport.

    "A longer runway will bring zero - I repeat - zero commercial flights…. There’s no reason for an airline to start service at CGS when they could do so at IAD or BWI…. The DC region already has their Billy Bishop airport (close to downtown) - it’s DCA."

    A few points here: (1) The longer runway will facilitate both commercial and GA flights. It’s about accommodating a greater range of planes, not about the character of service. (2) CGS is way closer to DC than IAD or BWI, and across the street from Metro. Those factors alone could draw final destination DC traffic (tour groups, commercial flights, corporate travelers etc.) to CGS. Location, location, location! As a PGC resident, I barely even think about IAD as a viable option for domestic travel, because it’s like 50 miles from my house. And I only think about BWI because I own a car, since it’s not connected to Metro. (3) CGS would likely draw different commercial traffic than the large hubs, like commuter air carriers (60-seat planes or under) flying commercial turboprops from smaller markets east of the Mississippi River (or from larger makets within a 200-mi radius that may not currently offer flights to DCA). (4) DCA is not Billy Bishop; it’s a large hub airport with a long-ish runway that serves a decent range of jets. And DCA is currently at capacity. There’s room for another close-to-DC, Metro-accessible airport (especially one that already exists).