The Front Door of the Community 7

History of Woodrum Field

The Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport is “the front door to the community, the first thing visitors see,” Bradley Boettcher, director of marketing and air service development at the airport, says. He spends his days working to ensure that it’s a positive first impression.

From his sunny, model plane-filled office–with a view of the real thing out the window—he acknowledges that his job, and that of the airport staff, can be challenging. After all, everyone has an opinion of the airport, down to its name which was changed to the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport a few years ago. But, he says, things are “in a very good position,” with passenger traffic up, more jets flying in and out, and the airport becoming more active in the community.

The airport has been in the same spot, under various names, since 1929 when Roanoke leased 136 acres of an old dairy farm owned by the Cannaday family. The city bought the land in 1934, and the first passengers arrived on American Airlines. In 1941, as part of a national defense project, it was dedicated as Woodrum Field. With World War II looming, Boettcher says, the young airport qualified for federal funds for such things as pilot training.  

Roanoke owned the airport until 1987 when the Roanoke Regional Airport Commission was formed. The commission consists of three members appointed by the city, and two by Roanoke County. In 1989, the current terminal was opened. The site of the old one, Boettcher says, is a bare pad that airport staff uses for training on snow removal equipment. While the commission runs the airport, its operating budget comes from landing fees, parking fees and rent, as well as federal and state grants. A recent $3.5 million federal capital improvement, for example, allowed the airport to replace its jet bridges.

The airport currently is served by four carriers: American, Delta, United and Allegiant, which offer almost 50 flights a day to eight nonstop destinations. American flies to Charlotte, Philadelphia and New York City/La Guardia. Delta flies nonstop to Atlanta, United flies to Chicago and Washington, D.C.; and Allegiant flies to Orlando via Sanford and Tampa through Clearwater. Boettcher notes most flights are on jets, with Delta now flying two full-sized jets to Atlanta each day, an option that increases the number of seats to and from that destination. Boettcher calls the American flight to Philadelphia “one of the best sightseeing flights,” as it offers views of Mill Mountain, then flies over Richmond and Washington, D.C. and its iconic monuments.

He says there are six more flights per week and 1,100 more seats than this time last year. Traffic has increased by 10 percent over the year and has been up 11 out of the last 12 months. The one down month, he notes, was during a period when Atlanta had a series of strong storms.

Boettcher says Roanoke is “lucky to have the connectivity we have; the service we have,” but acknowledges that he’s frequently asked about new destinations and carriers. On his wish list are Dallas on American (a large hub for that airline), Denver on United and restoring nonstop service to Detroit on Delta.

The subject of Southwest Airlines also is a recurring one. He says the question is “how they would serve us.” He notes they offer flights to Baltimore, as well as to Denver and Love Field in Dallas. Jet Blue would increase service to the Northeast and Fort Lauderdale. Florida. The increase in traffic in Roanoke will make the airport more attractive to new carriers, he says.

Other issues Boettcher often answers include reliability and cost. He says two of the carriers, Delta and United, have improved their reliability and the others are actively working on it. He acknowledges that Roanoke ticket prices tend to be more expensive, which he says is partly because, historically, the airport has had a lot of business travel, which can be less price-sensitive. Attracting a low-cost carrier would lower the overall fare structure. He’s hopeful that will happen within the next two or three years. He also notes that when he and his family took a trip to Europe recently, they got a very good ticket price.

The terminal has undergone some changes since it opened 28 years ago. Among the most notable is the revamped food service, he says, with McAllister’s Deli operating a full-service restaurant before security and a limited one on the other side of it. The Hudson store also has been revamped and has two locations, one on either side of security.

Visually, the inside of the terminal is being rebranded, Boettcher says. Clear Channel handles all of the advertising and has been partnering with local stakeholders “to bring the region’s natural beauty inside.” Also new is “Art in the Airport,” which features local artists and changes quarterly. Boettcher says they contacted arts organizations in the 19 jurisdictions primarily served by the airport to participate and will highlight each one. The project is in its second quarter. Outside, construction is underway for a covered walkway from the parking lot to the terminal.

The newest addition to the terminal is another airplane: a 1937 Waco biplane suspended above the rental car and baggage claim area. Boettcher says it was owned by the set designer of the original “Star Trek” TV series and had been at the Virginia Aviation Museum. When the museum closed, it found a home here. And, no, it wasn’t flown to Roanoke. It came by truck and was reassembled. Boettcher says he’d like to see another antique plane hung on the other side of the terminal.