AirTran's departure from Bloomington 'changes the landscape'

AirTran's departure from Bloomington 'changes the landscape'

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.

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DEB wrote on November 15, 2011 at 8:11 am

Speaking  as someone who travels over 100 days per year, I haven't used CMI in a very long time even though I live just West of Champaign. I almost always fly BMI for two reasons. One was AirTran. AirTran is a discount airline with superb service. I often could fly Business Class on AirTran for less than the fares out of Willard. And AirTran flies jets out of BMI, not puddle jumpers.

The other reason, no surprise, is that BMI has free parking. If I am taking a two or three week trip the parking at Willard often adds a couple hundred dollars to an already overpriced airfare. Willard has been recoginzed in the News-Gazette as having some of the most expensive flignts in the nation, while BMI is noted for having among the lowest for small, regional airports. Adding parking always put CMI out of the running for us.

So, perhaps residents of Champaign and Urbana and Savoy might hope that business will pick up at Willard. Half of the reason to fly elsewhere soon will be gone.  While we all saw this happening the day that Southwest bought AirTran, it still is a great shame for anyone who travels.

Or maybe I'll consider Amtrack too.

Orbiter wrote on November 15, 2011 at 9:11 am

While I agree with DEB on the CMI airfares and parking, I am very disappointed to see Airtran pull out of BMI. The Airtran flights out of BMI seem to always be quite popular and nearly full when I've flown, and there is no doubt that they were an important competitive force in Delta and AA's pricing.  It's clear that Southwest bought Airtran merely for some key routes, and Central IL isn't one of them, so they're cutting the service while it's still under the Airtran moniker to curb ill will toward SWA. But I think many of us see through that tactic.  

This becomes another example of how the consumer loses when large companies merge.  Will our government never learn?  "Too big to fail" means too big! Break 'em up!

ddf1972 wrote on November 15, 2011 at 9:11 am

This is just about the only good news for Willard in a long time, and I hope they find a way to use it to their advantage.  In the meantime, we continue with underserved airports.  No wonder so many go to Chicago and Indy.  We are seeing the results of every mid-sized city in central Illinois insisting on having their own airport, to their ultimate detriment.

palmerlaw wrote on November 15, 2011 at 5:11 pm

With BMI losing AirTran, CMI needs to make a move on the market... and it starts with FREE PARKING! Increased ridership + lower rates will follow.  

urbana1234 wrote on November 15, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Also, the U of I don't know how to manage an airport efficiently, needs to be sold off or whatever to a group with more experience. it is running them at a loss at this stage anyway, I'm sure.

squeaky wrote on November 15, 2011 at 7:11 pm

The U. of I. managed Willard airport should never had lost Delta Connection service to CIRA.  Nobody reading this post should doubt that CIRA management had something to do with the departure of Delta Connection from Willard.  Delta is a "legacy carrier" with high operational costs and cash flow problems (as most legacy carriers are) and they will almost certainly raise fares at CIRA after ATA leaves.  Those who manage Willard should view this as an opportunity.  Free parking needs to be considered.   Ultimately, a professionally managed airport authority would be beneficial, but it will likely have to be financed by establishing a tax district. 

Ryder wrote on November 15, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Like everyone else, I'd love to see CMI become a viable air travel option again for C/U residents. Though free parking is a nice perk that would remove an obstacle to ridership, I still feel the overwhelming deterrent is the significantly higher fares.

The last time I flew out of CMI (I use BMI almost exclusively now, or ORD if the fare is a bargain), parking was $5/day, not sure if that has increased by now. A week's parking was $35; not great, but factor in the ~100 miles spent driving to and from Bloomington at today's gas prices and the cost differential attributed from BMI's parking advantage falls off precipitously.

On the other hand, I regularly find the fares out of BMI to be about $100 cheaper than CMI, and there is the ocassional bargain priced flight (which never seems to occur leaving from Willard) to pounce on as well. This is the driving factor for myself and I'd presume for most other flyers.

And therein lies the rub. I don't know if it would take demonstrated increases in ridership out of CMI in order to get the carriers to lower prices, or if they will take the first step and lower prices to compete for customers. But I am certain that, as a traveller, I am not going to fly out of CMI until the overall fare difference is closed significantly.