|Image by M–NCPPC.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.