10,000 passengers later, Wilmington airport gets a status upgrade — and more federal dollars

Wilmington-New Castle Airport. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Wilmington-New Castle Airport. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

The Wilmington-New Castle Airport is about to cash in some very valuable frequent flyer rewards.

The restart of Frontier Airlines commercial flights out of the airport on Route 13 just south of the city of Wilmington brought more than 10,000 enplanements, or boardings of commercial flights, so far this year. That’s enough passengers to trigger a change in designation for the airport under the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules.

The airport has long been designated as a “general aviation reliever airport.” Starting in fiscal year 2023, the airport will be labeled a “primary commercial service airport,” meaning it will automatically qualify the airport for an extra $850,000 in federal funding.

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Previously, the airport had been entitled to just $150,000 per year. The facility’s new entitlement will total $1 million.

“In addition to the boost in federal entitlement dollars, the primary CSA designation also has significance within the airline, cargo, and commercial airport communities,” said Stephen Williams, deputy executive director and airport director for the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which manages the airport.

“It further validates the airport’s regional recognition as a low-cost leader with growing preference as an alternative, ease of use secondary airport serving the Philadelphia metro area,” he said.

The Wilmington facility is one of 385 airports nationwide to attain CSA status, and the only one in Delaware to get such a label.

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Frontier launched service from Delaware to Orlando in early February, six years after it halted flights from New Castle in 2015, leaving Delaware as the only state in the nation without commercial air service. The airline had planned to restart flights in May 2020, but hit the brakes after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The airport was busiest in July and August, with 1,689 and 1,584 boardings respectively.

The airport is also home to the Delaware Air National Guard, which frequently shares the runways with Air Force One when President Joe Biden travels home.

In 2019, New Castle County launched a task force to explore possible ways to make the airport more profitable. While the county owns the facility, it signed a 30-year lease with DRBA to run it in 1995. As the 2025 expiration of that lease approaches, County Executive Matt Meyer questioned whether DRBA was getting enough value out of the airport.

A 2018 economic impact study commissioned by DelDOT found the airport provides direct employment for more than 1,600 workers and generates $10 million in state and local tax funds. At the time, Meyer wanted to get even more value out of the facility and was looking at the possibility of changing the airport’s operations agreement.

Since taking over operations in 1995, DRBA spent $139 million on capital improvements, including a new state-of-the-art airport traffic control tower, 10 new corporate hangars, and a new $5.1 million paint hangar for Dassault-Falcon’s service and repair facility for its corporate jet customers.

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