Turbulent time for Willard Airport
Facing a recent decline in passengers, an ever-changing industry and regional competition, Willard Airport and its ambitious task force have plenty on their plate
SAVOY — Late one afternoon in June 1950, a DC-3 named "City of Champaign-Urbana" by Park Air Lines took off from St. Louis en route to a relatively new airport owned by the University of Illinois.
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That summer, after several years of delays, the Champaign-Urbana area saw the launch of regular commercial air service.
Since then Willard has seen its share of successes (a well-regarded flight school, American Eagle increasing the number of daily flights to Chicago), disappointments (Delta pulling out, Vision Airlines' short-lived stint) and at least one oddity (Air Force One stuck in the mud).
Countless airlines (remember Ozark? Piedmont?), flights (Nashville! Las Vegas! Cincinnati!) and committees later, community leaders and area travelers are asking this question:
Where do we go from here?
"Willard is a nice little airport. It's close. It's convenient," said Vivienne Mackie of Urbana, who travels nationally and internationally about a dozen times a year. Born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa, Mackie and her husband have been in town since 1988. How often they fly out of Willard varies year to year.
"We've used (Willard) ever since we've been here, but not as frequently as in the beginning," she said.
Why not? Cheaper fares out of other airports. Wanting to fly on airlines that don't service Willard. Scheduling conflicts.
Other travelers will say it's the parking fees ($5 a day). Some, like Lawson Lau of Mahomet, who rack up frequent-flier miles on other airlines, prefer to drive to O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. There they take advantage of park-sleep-fly packages, which involves staying at a hotel one night, leaving the car there for free and then taking the hotel's free shuttle to the airport.
"If they bring in another airline, like United, I'd consider (Willard)," said Lau, an area pastor.
UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who in her 2-1/2 years on campus has made economic development a priority, has asked a new task force to come up with recommendations on how to keep and expand air service at Willard Airport. As a follow-up to a 2011 study done for the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, the task force also will examine and make recommendations on a governance structure for the airport, which is owned and operated by the university.
They've got about a year to do their work.
The challenge facing the group is, "What can we do with the airport to not only have it be successful but be an economic engine for the community?" said its chairman, retired Champaign city manager Steve Carter. "And how can we do that in a sustainable way, not just for a year or two but something we can count on for several years in the future."
"If it was easy it probably would have been done a while ago," Carter added.
The UI and Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District plan to hire a consultant to help the group facilitate the process this year. The cost is estimated at about $100,000, with the UI paying for about 90 percent and MTD covering 10 percent.
From here to where?
Right now American Eagle offers several flights daily to Chicago and one flight daily to Dallas/Fort Worth. A Nevada resort also offers flights via Sun Country from Willard.
On a recent American Eagle flight to Chicago, Candy Dobson of Cerro Gordo was headed to Charlotte, N.C., to visit her nieces, and Joanne Manaster of Champaign was headed to Abu Dhabi for a sustainability conference.
It was Dobson's first time flying out of Willard (she normally uses the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington). After her recent, hassle-free experience, she plans to consider Willard more.
"Check-in was really easy. The whole process was easy," she said.
As for Manaster, how often she flies in and out of Willard depends on who's paying for the ticket (if she's traveling for work, on a fixed honorarium or for pleasure) and which carrier she plans to fly. If it's going to cost her an extra $300 or so to fly the leg from Champaign to Chicago, she'll drive to Chicago, "even though it makes for an extra long day of travel," she said.
"The key is air service," said Bruce Walden, director of real estate planning and services and whose responsibilities include Willard Airport. "All other things go away, the issue of parking goes away. It's the ability to have air service that goes where people want to go at a frequency that gets them there when they want to get there and at a price that is tolerable. That's the key," he said.
Approximately 16 percent of travelers in the area fly Willard, Walden said.
The number of "enplanements" (passengers boarding planes) at Willard has dipped in recent years, especially since the departure of Delta Airlines in 2010. A decade ago the number was around 118,000. In 2012 the number slipped to about 86,000; 2013 figures haven't been finalized yet, according to Walden. In comparison, the Bloomington-Normal airport had 240,181 enplanements in 2012.
(In terms of takeoffs and landings, Willard is among the busier airports in the state due to activity associated with the UI's Institute of Aviation, Walden said. The UI had planned to close the institute, but Parkland College is taking on those aviation programs this year.)
University employees are the biggest users of the airport. There's no mandate for them to fly in and out of the local airport, but many do. The UI's annual expense out of Willard is about $5.6 million, according to UI Associate Chancellor Mike DeLorenzo.
As the university considers expanding service, officials have been looking east. Specifically Washington, D.C.
"With the amount of federal research we're engaged at the university ... the focus would be going east," DeLorenzo said.
Second place is the West Coast, such as San Francisco, due to UI researchers and employees of area technology companies doing business in Silicon Valley.
Mackie's first choice?
"Atlanta's a good hub. From there you can go almost everywhere," she said.
Maybe it was the 30-mile-an-hour winds or snow flying on the day Manaster was set to takeoff, but she would like to see a flight to the south, maybe Orlando?
When considering the future of Willard, one must ask the question, what is the future of the airline industry, said Alan Nudo, president of Robesons Inc. and a member of the task force. (Nudo has also sat on the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation's airport committee.)
In an era of increasing consolidation, jet fuel prices trending three times higher than they were a decade ago, the airport and the task force face steep challenges.
"All (airlines) have is capital equipment, and they move that capital equipment to where they can make a profit," Nudo said. "They will move their assets — planes — to where they can make money," he pointed out.
It's not unusual for airlines to demand revenue guarantees from communities in which they launch new service. In 2012, the UI was awarded a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Small Community Air Service Program to expand air service to the East Coast. The federal program helps fund revenue guarantees as well as marketing costs.
The UI's efforts to add East Coast service were put on the back burner for some time while the American Airlines/US Airways antitrust case was settled with the U.S. Department of Justice.
In 2000, the U.S. had about 11 major airlines (Northwest, Delta, United, Continental, AirTran, Southwest, ATA, American Airlines, TWA, US Airways, America West). Today there are four: Delta, United, Southwest, American.
"The industry has gone through such a big changes. We can't underestimate this merger," said DeLorenzo about American/US Airways.
"Now we're down to four airlines trying to serve major and regional airlines. Competition is great. It's difficult (to expand air service) but we're continuing to look at it. That's why want to get community input to help us through this process," he said.
As part of its work, the task force also will look at how the airport can drive economic development in the region. That entails supporting and expanding aviation-related businesses and other opportunities at the airport.The airport property encompasses about 1,700 acres and some of that land is farmed. Those operations do bring in a good chunk of revenue to the airport, about $274,000 annually.
The airport itself employs about 22 people. Adding in other businesses that operate at the airport, such as Flightstar, the number is around 260.
"I think the airport is a driver for growth as well," not just aviation-industry related growth, but for all companies looking at Champaign-Urbana, said Dan Sholem, an equipment finance consultant and member of the task force.
"It's a job generator pure and simple," Nudo added.
"When national (business) concerns come in and look at a city (for a possible location), they have a checklist. One item is, is there an airport that gets me in and out in an efficient way? If a business is told, well, you can drive 40 minutes to Bloomington's airport, why wouldn't the business then locate in Bloomington?" Nudo asked.
The fact that the university is an airport owner and operator is rare. (Penn State's University Park Airport is owned by the university, but the terminal is managed by an airport authority.)
The university does subsidize its operations by about $433,000 annually.
Over the years, consultants and community members have floated other options for how the airport could be governed, such as by a local airport authority, a contractor that would manage operations, a city department, or even the C-U MTD.
At the time of the governance study (2011), UI officials were quoted as saying running an airport was not a "core competency" of the university.
When asked if the university ever intends to get out of the airport business, Chancellor Phyllis Wise said earlier this week the university is "trying to work out an organizational structure that will work for this community, because we realize that a really good airport is so important to people being able to get in and out of the city. We're working on whatever it will take, whatever organizational structure it will take, to be able to do that," Wise said.
Whether or not that means hiring an airport management company or establishing a new local governmental body to run it, Wise said, "We're thinking about all sorts of different alternatives."
Added DeLorenzo: "The answer is it's not part of our core mission to operate an airport." However, the airport is "integral to the success of the university," in terms of recruiting faculty, helping researchers move around the country and world, he said.
"I think it's going to have to be some kind of joint venture," said Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing, "a public-private thing so no one (city or agency) gets overburdened."
The university has supported Willard since 1945, the year the airport was established, and the community has benefitted from it since then, Nudo said.
He has had held informal meetings with people from the private industry to hear their ideas and concerns and to drum up support for the airport.
"It's time for the community to be a part of this, to assist in making sure the future of Willard is bright," Nudo said.
Committee examines airport
What it is: Willard Airport Governance and Sustainable Air Service Advisory Task Force
Its aim: To essentially develop a business plan, to submit recommendations to Chancellor Phyllis Wise for short and long-term strategies to sustain and expand local air service. Also provide recommendations on the governance of the airport.
The group has met twice so far and plans to submit recommendations by the end of the year.
The number of Willard Airport enplanements (passengers boarding a flight), according to Federal Aviation Administration records.
Willard Airport (airport code CMI) ranked 232 in the nation for enplanements in 2012.
Bloomington-Normal's airport ranked 161.
2013 numbers not available yet.
Willard Airport expenditure averages, 2009-2013
General Services (e.g. insurance): $272,744
Other (Debt service/loan; telecomm/prof services, advertising, etc.): $270,242
Willard Airport revenue averages, 2009-2013
UI/state funds: $433,707
Terminal space rental (incl FAA tower, TSA space): $432,762
Rental car commissions: $327,795
Farm sales: 274,194
Landing fees: $111,879
Misc. rev/other sales: $26,573
Source: University of Illinois