UI considering fate of airport parking fee

UI considering fate of airport parking fee

SAVOY – Just how badly do people want to avoid the parking fees at Willard Airport?

According to airport Director Gene Barton, some travelers are willing to wait until midnight, when the parking attendant goes off duty, before exiting the airport lots.

Barton said he's been told "it looks like a drive-in movie theater" with all the cars waiting to leave. He said he knew of a doctor who returned to Champaign-Urbana after spending two weeks in Vail, Colo., but was willing to outwait the attendant before driving home from the airport. Willard charges a maximum of $5 a day for parking.

The fee particularly riles some travelers because parking at Bloomington's Central Illinois Regional Airport is free. Unlike Willard Airport, which is owned by the University of Illinois, the Bloomington airport is supported by a local taxing authority.

During a presentation about the airport to the Champaign County Economic Development Corp. board of directors last week, Barton outlined several "frequently asked questions" about the airport. No. 2 on the list was "Why must (the airport) continue to charge for parking?"

The answer to the question, Barton said, is that parking revenue was pledged to help pay for the airport's debt service and staff. He said the debt service, which amounts to about $250,000 a year, is scheduled to be paid off three years from now – in the summer of 2009.

As that date approaches, the university will have to decide whether it will continue to charge for parking to help cover airport expenses.

Barton, who is also an associate vice chancellor at the UI, said if parking were free, more people would park there and the lot might not be big enough to handle them. If additional lots needed to be built, the university would have to find revenue to cover that expense, he added.

The airport has a budget of about $2 million, with roughly $500,000 of that coming from the state and the rest from other sources. The "big three" revenue sources, he said, are car rentals, parking and income from Flightstar, the airport's fixed base operator.

Barton said Willard's ownership arrangement is unusual. He said his research indicates only one other university-owned and -operated airport that offers commercial service – and that's at Texas A&M-Easterwood Airport in College Station, Texas.

University Park Airport, which serves Penn State, is operated by that university, but overseen by a separate airport authority, he said.

A community roundtable group has discussed possible ways to generate revenue for Willard. Those include forming an airport authority with taxing ability or leasing airport land to third parties for use as a research park or hotel site, he said.

However, no formal recommendations have been made. Barton said roundtable members felt land leases should be tried before the university considers forming an airport authority.

It's been suggested that the university hire consultants to develop a master plan for the airport, but Barton said UI President B. Joseph White and Chancellor Richard Herman have yet to sign off on that.

At Thursday's meeting, Champaign County Board Chair Barbara Wysocki pressed Barton to define the university's main goal or mission for the airport.

Barton said the UI believes the airport is needed to attract and retain faculty, students and researchers at the university and its research park, and to accommodate their travel.

Wysocki said she interpreted that answer to mean the UI sees the airport as "a tool of economic development" and "more a community service than a business model."

Maintaining and expanding air service is a priority for the airport. Currently, American Eagle has six flights daily to Chicago's O'Hare Airport and one flight daily to Dallas-Fort Worth. Northwest Airlink has two flights daily to Detroit.

Until this year, Willard also enjoyed Delta Connection service to Cincinnati. But the financially challenged airline changed the destination to Atlanta in June, then discontinued service altogether at the end of September.

Barton said his greatest nightmare would be Northwest Airlines going broke and its regional operator, Mesaba Airlines, ceasing service here. That would leave American Eagle as the only carrier serving Willard.

"That would be like having one bank in town. It's not a good deal," he said.

Barton discussed air traffic at Willard over the past 45 years, and noted most of the big bumps and dips in usage were related to developments at Chanute Air Force Base, which closed in 1993.

Enplanements peaked around 160,000 about 1990, then dipped below 100,000 after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, before rising again the last two years.

Bloomington's enplanements didn't top 100,000 until 1997 when discount carrier AirTran started service there. Now enplanements in Bloomington number more than 200,000 a year.

Barton also outlined about $12 million in construction and renovation projects under way or coming up at the airport.

The most expensive are $3.2 million for air carrier apron repairs and $3 million for taxiway resurfacing. Those who have recently visited the airport may have noticed parking lot repairs, pegged at $1 million; replacement of entry doors at the terminal, $500,000; and repairs to the terminal ring road, $820,000.

Future projects include replacing two loading bridges, improvements to the instrument landing system, the replacement of a T-hangar replacement and work on a T-hangar taxiway.

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