BLOOMINGTON — AirTran Airways' decision to end service to Bloomington's Central Illinois Regional Airport will affect travelers and airports throughout the area, an airport spokeswoman said.
"AirTran's presence had an impact throughout the region," said Fran Strebing, deputy director of marketing for the Bloomington airport. "This changes the landscape for everybody."
AirTran announced Friday it will discontinue service to Bloomington next June.
The airline, which has served the city since 1997, offers three daily nonstop flights to Atlanta, plus flights to Orlando, Fla., several times a week. All that is scheduled to end June 2.
AirTran, which was acquired by Southwest Airlines earlier this year, said it could no longer support service to Bloomington and four other airports as a result of high fuel prices and "the challenging economic environment."
Other airports affected by the move include Washington's Dulles International Airport, Miami International Airport, Yeager Airport in Charleston, W.Va., and McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tenn.
The airline said 19 employees associated with the flights at Bloomington "will have the opportunity to move elsewhere within AirTran" when local operations cease next year.
Passengers with tickets or reservations for AirTran flights from Bloomington won't have to change travel plans if they're flying on or before June 2, the airline said.
Central Illinois Regional Airport became the fast-growing airport in the nation in 1997, after AirTran launched jet service from Bloomington to Orlando that year.
A consulting firm predicted AirTran's arrival would have a snowball effect, attracting other airlines to the airport — and subsequent events proved that right.
AirTran has accounted for about 40 percent of Central Illinois Regional Airport's enplanements this year, Strebing said.
Other airlines serving the airport:
— American Eagle, with three flights a day to Chicago's O'Hare Airport and one a day to Dallas-Fort Worth.
— Delta, with four flights a day to Atlanta, two to Detroit and one to Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Strebing said airport staff met with Southwest several times, providing information on the local market in hopes of retaining AirTran service.
"We certainly were hoping for a different outcome ... and we thought we made a strong case for coming into Central Illinois Regional Airport," she said.
The airport emphasized its history of drawing travelers from throughout the region as well as strong corporate support.
But Strebing said the airport "fell short and (we) are very disappointed. We'll look to Plan B, the next phase."
She said the airport is "not ready to reveal publicly" what that is. She noted there are fewer airlines to recruit, as a result of consolidation in the industry.
As a discount carrier, AirTran set the price point for flights to Atlanta, Strebing said. Once AirTran departs, Delta will be the only airline providing direct service from Bloomington to Atlanta, giving the carrier the opportunity to raise its fares.
"Certainly, that's a possibility," Strebing said. "That's what we'll find out in the days ahead — what this will do to our fares."
During the first 10 months of this year, AirTran had 98,596 enplanements at Central Illinois Regional Airport, up 12.8 percent from 87,399 enplanements during the same 10 months in 2010.
Seamus Reilly, who co-chairs the Champaign County Economic Development Corp.'s airport committee, said the discount-carrier market attracts a lot of business and he expects Central Illinois Regional Airport to look for another carrier.
Reilly said the airline industry is "not in good shape" and is volatile, with several airlines merging in recent years.
AirTran's departure from Bloomington underscores the importance of maintaining air service in Champaign County, with major employers wanting ready access to airline service, he said.
"We can't have our only airline in Chicago," said Reilly, whose committee recently hired a consultant to outline the need for governance changes at Willard Airport in Savoy.