““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
When you arrive on an airline flight into Washington, D.C.'s Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the seats on the left side of the aisle provide the best views of the city, especially during early April when the Tidal Basin is abloom with cherry blossoms. But chances are you'll never see this sight from your business jet, as tight security restrictions make it difficult for most private aircraft to use the airport.
The main advantage of Reagan National that you lose when you arrive at other Washington-area airports is direct access to the city's subways, which can get you downtown in about 15 minutes. Passengers deplaning at Washington Dulles International, Leesburg Executive, Manassas Regional or Montgomery County airports should anticipate a 30- to 90-minute drive into the city.
High-occupancy-vehicle lanes on Virginia's I-66 (from Manassas) and Route 267 (from Dulles and Leesburg) and on Maryland's I-270 (from Montgomery County) allow limousines and taxis to shave a few minutes off the trip during morning and afternoon rush hours. You can also use a special toll-free access road that parallels Route 267 between the Capital Beltway (I-495) and Dulles Airport, but be sure to leave plenty of extra time to get to that important meeting.
The good news is that each of these airports offers the services, if not quite the convenience and scenery, you'd expect when visiting the nation's capital.
Washington Dulles International
Located 24 miles west of Capitol Hill, Dulles is a huge international airport that is surprisingly accommodating to general aviation. Signature Flight Support and Landmark Aviation (formerly known as Piedmont Hawthorne) are the two resident fixed-base operators (FBOs) providing a variety of products and ground-support services to flight crews and their passengers. Though neither facility includes a restaurant, Harry's Tap Room of Arlington, Va., opened a location in May in the main passenger terminal (703-661-2164). The restaurant, which features organic vegetables and free-range meats, also has a location inside the gate area.
Landmark handles about 100 aircraft per day and pumps 15 million gallons of jet-A fuel a year here, according to general manager Jim McNeill. The 30-acre facility includes 27,000 square feet of shop and office space and three 18,000-square-foot corporate hangars that shelter up to six jets each, including a Global Express sporting the Washington Redskins logo on its tail.
You'll find long-term outdoor parking available near the runway and in additional space occasionally contracted from neighbor FedEx. A large, vacant hangar previously owned by a now-defunct airline, Independence Air, is adjacent to Landmark's corporate hangars, and McNeill said he intends to pursue a long-term lease from whoever buys the building.
The newly renovated 8,000-square-foot lobby at Landmark's Dulles facility features two flat-screen televisions, coordinating blue-and-maroon plush chairs and ottomans (designed, the company said, to reflect the ambiance of the Virginia hunt country), wireless Internet access, a fireplace and an Enterprise car rental counter. The FBO moved its pilots' lounge, which previously faced the ramp, to the rear of the building where it's quieter and it refashioned the old room as a weather briefing station. To the right of the main reception desk are two large, nicely furnished conference rooms that can accommodate meetings of up to 10 people.
Signature Flight Support's spacious lobby at Dulles features plush seating, flat-screen Internet monitors, plasma televisions and tall windows that provide excellent visibility of the ramp area. The facility includes a business center, private telephone rooms and data ports, an executive conference room, a flight-planning room and a pilots' lounge with "quiet rooms" and massage chairs.
The hangars at Signature can accommodate aircraft as large as a Gulfstream V and the expanded ramp is big enough for a Boeing 747. Speaking of very large aircraft, the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center-which opened in December 2003 and houses the Space Shuttle Enterprise and the Enola Gay-is right next door to the airport and has become a popular fly-in destination.
Enterprise rental cars are available at Landmark, Hertz is at Signature and both FBOs offer courtesy cars or shuttles to the museum. (Be sure to see the museum's 1964 Learjet 23-one of the first business jets ever built.)
Wedged between northern Virginia's burgeoning suburbs and bucolic horse country is Leesburg Executive Airport. The facility opened in 1963 and was originally named Godfrey Field after local pilot and national radio and television celebrity Arthur Godfrey. The bright and welcoming public terminal was renovated in 2004 and features modest but ample sofa seating, free wireless Internet access, a conference room and café tables and chairs situated on a loft overlooking the runway.
"Pretty much all of the amenities you can get at a larger airport, you can get here," said John Hovis, general manager of Landmark Aviation, the airport's only FBO. A crew car, rest area with showers, ground power units, tugs and overnight hangar spaces are available, he said. There is no on-site restaurant but customer service supervisor Karen Trafford recommends the Blue Ridge Grill (703-669-5505) or Lightfoot (703-771-2233), both about 10 minutes away in historic old-town Leesburg. Enterprise rental cars are available at the FBO.
The airport supports two flight schools, and Trafford said its small-town personality has helped make it a friendly place for business aviation. "The corporate jets found us and loved us," she said. "They like that homey feeling."
Over the last decade, the Leesburg Airport Commission has been tweaking the facility's business plan to take advantage of its location at the center of Loudoun County, one of the fastest growing-and wealthiest-counties in the nation. "Business travel is the future of Leesburg Executive Airport, thus the reason for its renaming in 2000," said Leesburg Airport Commission vice chairman Dennis Boykin.
Hovis, who previously worked at Dulles for about 10 years, said Leesburg's size and location provide certain advantages over its larger cousin. There are no landing or ramp fees at Leesburg, whereas it costs up to $100 to park a jet at Dulles. And when Dulles suspends operations due to severe weather elsewhere along the airline routes, corporate jets will often divert to Leesburg or Manassas. "It gives us a great option for customers," McNeill said. "We try to keep it in the family."
Leesburg refurbished its 5,500-foot runway last summer and a full instrument landing system approach to it has been approved for construction, Boykin said. Landmark pumps about 300,000 gallons of jet-A fuel per year here, and Hovis said he foresees this number rising as the airport becomes more popular with business jet crews.
With 10 technicians on staff, Landmark is an authorized Beechcraft service center, conducting all major maintenance from its 35,000-square-foot hangar. While the FBO is officially staffed only from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, after-hours service is readily available.
If you like to play golf, you may want to stay at the nearby Lansdowne Resort (877-509-8400), which features more than 300 upscale guest rooms and suites, and two championship courses. For the shoppers in your group, the Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets (703-737-3071) are less than five miles from the airport.
Located 12 miles south of Dulles, Manassas Regional Airport is a bustling general aviation facility that has experienced tremendous growth since it first opened in 1964 with a single, 3,400-foot runway. A 5,700-foot parallel runway was later added, and in 1992 the airport erected a control tower. The main terminal building opened in 1996 for scheduled airline service that never materialized; it remains mostly unused except for the airport manager's office. Right next door, however, is the airport's primary business aviation FBO, NextFlight Aviation.
Founded in 2004 with the purchase of the former Jet Services building and managed by former Jet Services employee Daryl LaClair, NextFlight provides a full range of business aviation services, including a spacious passenger lobby with wireless Internet, widescreen television, big leather sofas and a popcorn machine. Several crew cars are available as part of NextFlight's agreement with Hertz, which shares the front desk. The crew rest area features a cloth sofa and television, plus a twin bed in an adjacent room.
While the guest bathrooms are rather institutional looking and sparingly stocked (no beauty supplies for the ladies), NextFlight offers something that most general aviation airport FBOs do not: its own stylish bar and restaurant, complete with crisp white linens and candles on every table. The Flight Deck is run by James Gibney, a professionally trained chef from England, and his wife. The menu includes the usual burgers and club sandwiches but also such items as shrimp and scallop wontons, sautéed pork medallions and jerk-rubbed, pan-roasted red snapper with mango salsa. The restaurant, which provides most of the in-flight catering for NextFlight customers, gladly accommodates special requests.
LaClair, a former police officer who survived a gunshot to the head (he still carries the scar, along with his badge), said NextFlight is on target to sell more than one million gallons of jet-A this year and will soon open a 100,000-square-foot corporate hangar. NextFlight also plans to break ground this year on a 125,000-square-foot corporate jet center to house the company's fleet of managed aircraft. In addition to its FBO operation, NextFlight Aviation runs a charter service with seven airplanes, including two Falcon 900 jets. Aircraft detailing services are also available.
The city of Manassas, which owns and operates the airport, enforces an aircraft weight limit of 150,000 pounds, though the facility's 5,700-foot runway can accommodate heavier airplanes on an infrequent basis. Contact the airport director (703-361-1882) for information on how to obtain a temporary exemption.
Also serving Manassas Airport is Dulles Aviation, providing aviation fuel, maintenance services for piston aircraft and flight training. The FBO's nicely furnished lobby is bright and welcoming, with an unobstructed view of the west ramp that is adjacent to the airport's shorter, 3,700-foot runway. A large display case filled with general aviation books and supplies also suggests that Dulles Aviation caters more to the single- engine pilot than the corporate flight department. However, the facility offers all the basic necessities a weary Citation driver could want, including a comfortable lounge with television and free Internet access.
According to general manager Joe Gardner, Dulles Aviation pumps about half as much jet-A as NextFlight, primarily because it doesn't manage any aircraft or offer charter services. Gardiner, who has worked with the family-owned business for more than 20 years, said his 75,000 square feet of hangar space is full but can accommodate a mid-size business jet with prior notice. Dulles Aviation leases its space from the city but is looking into building 60,000 additional square feet of hangar space, he said.
On most weekdays, the ramp at Montgomery County Airport in Gaithersburg, Md., is populated with an eclectic mix of aircraft, ranging from Cessna 150s to Citation Xs. Located 21 miles northwest of Capitol Hill, the facility and its main terminal building were built in the mid-1960s and have not changed substantially since then. It is a very busy general aviation airport with a dedicated tenant base that has for years struggled to project a corporate-friendly image.
Aside from a few chairs on the main and upper levels, it has little public space to sit and work or just relax. The pilots' lounge offers a computer with Internet access, cable television and two well-worn sofas, but crewmembers who arrive early or late in the day may find the room locked.
Whatever this airport lacks in curb appeal and corporate panache, it makes up for handily in convenience, especially for those doing business at the nearby National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Institutes of Health or the many biotechnology companies based in Montgomery County-which gives Loudoun a run for its money in terms of per-capita income. The Shady Grove train station is only a five-minute drive away (though you'll have to call a taxi to get there). The Metro can get you to National Institutes of Health in 20 minutes and to downtown Washington in 40 minutes, even during rush hour when the trip could take you much longer by car.
Montgomery Aviation is the airport's sole FBO. According to manager Darlene Brown, the company sold about 175,000 gallons of jet-A last year and depends on this revenue to support the flight-training business it operates here. Upon request, Montgomery Aviation will help a flight crew arrange ground transportation, make a hotel reservation or order catering but the company doesn't actively market the full spectrum of concierge services offered by the larger national FBO chains. Most crews, Brown said, prefer to handle these tasks themselves. Enterprise rental cards will deliver and pick up passengers here, but maintains no on-site representative.
The Airport Café, located inside the main terminal building at this airport, is a mom-and-pop operation serving up the usual breakfast and lunch fare plus several Middle Eastern dishes favored by its Armenian owners. Old aviation photographs decorate the walls and model wooden airplanes hang from the ceiling. The deck is open during the spring, summer and early fall and is a popular place for airport regulars and local families to enjoy a meal while watching student pilots practice touch-and-go landings.
The Montgomery County Revenue Authority, which owns and operates the airport, is soliciting proposals for development of a new terminal building, FBO and corporate hangars on the north end of the field but it could be several months or more before anyone breaks ground.
While aircraft as large as a lightly loaded Global Express have used the airport's 4,200-foot runway, several crews noted that they sometimes cannot land here because their flight departments require a minimum runway length of 5,000 feet, especially if the surface is wet or on hot days when performance is degraded. Airport manager John Luke is spearheading the redesign efforts and said that while no plans exist to extend the runway, improvements to the taxiway and approach lighting system are under way.
Precious little hangar space is available for transients and the ramp can get crowded, especially in mid-June when celebrity golfers and fans converge for the Booz Allen Classic at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel in nearby Potomac, Md.
"We go out of our way to get helicopters and jets into the hangar," Brown said, noting that indoor parking costs $200 a night while the $12 outdoor ramp fee is waived with a fuel purchase. The 8,000-square-foot hangar can comfortably accommodate two small jets, she said.