Turbulent time for Willard Airport

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.

How could Willard do better? Let columnist Tom Kacich know here

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.

Business opportunities

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.

UI role

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.

More info: Several reports are available on airport's website under the "task force tab" on the airport's homepage, http://www.flycmi.com. A report with basic information about the airport is here.

Counting fliers

The number of Willard Airport enplanements (passengers boarding a flight), according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

2007 112,440

2008 98,225

2009 88,068

2010 85,715

2011 83,731

2012 86,408

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

Personnel/benefits: $1.332,091

General Services (e.g. insurance): $272,744

Utilities: $251,072

Supplies/Materials: $177,885

Other (Debt service/loan; telecomm/prof services, advertising, etc.): $270,242

Willard Airport revenue averages, 2009-2013

Parking: $470,272

UI/state funds: $433,707

Terminal space rental (incl FAA tower, TSA space): $432,762

FBO/T-Hangar: $394,457

Rental car commissions: $327,795

Farm sales: 274,194

Landing fees: $111,879

Misc. rev/other sales: $26,573

Source: University of Illinois


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Rocky7 wrote on January 19, 2014 at 7:01 am

Hasn't this movie been played many times before with the same results - another committee to look at the problem?

Although I left the community 20 years ago, one of the concern travellers had then was not mentioned in this article.  LONG CONNECTION WAITS in CHicago and St. Louis to get anywwhere after flying in from Willard AIrport, or waiting to go back.

I discovered the best way around this was to drive to CHicago, park at the airport and travel. That also gave me more flight choices out of Chicago.

Perhaps this issue still exists.  If so, it wouldn't surprise me.

HorsePunchKid wrote on January 19, 2014 at 8:01 am

I haven't tracked the data carefully, but my impression from flying every few months is that since AA ended up with a monopoly at Willard, the prices have gone up dramatically. Five years ago, the legs from ORD to CMI and back woud add less than $100 to the price of a ticket, often only $60 or so. Now, at some $200-300 for those legs, it costs as much as a round-trip from ORD to JFK (granted, a very different route in terms of supply and demand).

Why pay for that, when you have BMI, ORD, MDW, and IND all an easy drive away, and cheap and reliable buses and trains to Chicago? I do miss the half-hour flight down from Chicago, but I don't miss it $200.

I would be curious to see data correlating the rise in price that I think I've seen with the drop in ridership. It could be that causation is in the other direction, even, but that would be at odds with my impression that flights generally have not gotten two or three times as expensive.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on January 19, 2014 at 3:01 pm
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My routine: Greyhound, AMTRAK or Megabus to downtown Chicago. Blue Line to O'Hare, or Orange Line to Midway.


Total cost is under $15.


No parking, no traffic. I watch a movie or surf the net en route. I can cycle to Illinois Terminal, or ride the MTD if it's raining. I can leave my bike at the station, and avoid parking fees.


AA flights from CMI are now a billion dollars each. CMI is simply not an option at this point.

Reykjavik wrote on January 19, 2014 at 8:01 am

I fly a lot out of Willard and like it.    Why would I want to drive to ORD - tedious and time consuming.  I board early AM, hungry and tired, arrive in Chicago or Dallas, have a nice snack and am on my way, arriving anywhere I want in the US around noon.  

The security people and gate agents really try hard.  The free internet service is nice.  

Bad things about Willard: 1) Parking fees, seems petty 2) Weird taxi service that suppresses competition and delivers an poor image.

The perennial problem at Willard will never be resolved until one of the mid-sized airports folds - Bloomington, Peoria, Decatur.  And that is not going to happen because each one of these towns is fighting the same fight.


EdRyan wrote on January 19, 2014 at 9:01 am

The economic nature of the C-U regional economic hub for this area strongly suggests direct connections to the SF Bay area, Boston area, and DC.  I would place the SF Bay area and Boston area much higher up the priority list due to the industry connections.  

Quasi wrote on January 19, 2014 at 10:01 am

By saying there are only 4 airlines at this time might be one of the problems with a seemingly short-sighted committee. There are more than just the 4 legacy airlines. JetBlue, Spirit and Frontier are also large airlines that could be persuaded to come to CMI. Many smaller cities have looked past the legacy airlines because of ticket fees, and have welcomed the smaller airlines. Plus, these airlines utilize full sized aircraft, not just regional jets that have been coming to Williard for decades; passengers like the added room of a larger full sized plane, rather than the stretched business jets.

Looking at the Legacies' hubs, you find that American has hubs in Dallas and Chicago, and Williard already has flights to those cities. United has hubs in Houston, Cleveland and Chicago; perhaps a flight to Chicago could be picked up. Southwest had hubs in Nashville, Kansas City and Chicago-Midway; more than likely, this area will not get a Southwest flight, as they have local flights to St. Louis and Indianapolis. Delta has hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit and Atlanta; as already stated, there must have been a huge reason they left Champaign, only to stay in Bloomington.

I am travelling to Dallas next month; I chose to fly out of Indianapolis instead of here. Why? To save $300 on airfare, on the same airline! Even tho it will cost $100 in gas and parking fees, the price benefit was worth making the decision.

If Bloomington (which had a very successful run with AirTran to both Orlando and Atlanta, and now enjoys Frontier to Denver) can get large airlines, why can't Champaign? Even after Southwest pulled AirTran from BMI, Delta still flies to Atlanta daily; Williard can't prove to any airline they can support that as well?

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on January 19, 2014 at 3:01 pm
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Frontier might. Spirit would not.


Frontier employs a variety of the hub-and-spoke method (hence their presence at CIRA). But Spirit is strictly a metro area airline. 


Spirit sometimes flies from the major airports (O'Hare) and sometimes from the outlying, smaller airports (Latrobe, Sky Harbor) but it's always a metro area (Pittsburgh and Phoenix in the latter cases).


With JetBlue, the strategy is coastal. Look at the route map. How does CMI fit that picture? Answer: It does not. They have VERY few inland airports, and those few are all major major metro spots.

Herb wrote on January 19, 2014 at 10:01 am

In the (recent) past, flying from Champaign was prohibitively expensive. I fly monthly and never even bothered to look at Willard, instead usually choosing to fly from O'Hare or Indianapolis and occasionally Bloomington or Midway. However, in the last few months I noticed the fares dropping much lower at Willard. I was able to fly to Denver, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, all for less than $300 per roundtrip. Each of these flights was within $50 or $75 of a flight from O'Hare or Indy, and they were actually the same or cheaper than Bloomington flights too. I'll definitely pay an extra $50 to fly from an airport 3 miles from my house and avoid having to get up at 3am for am 8am flight from O'Hare. 

Now if only we could do something about the paid parking...

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on January 19, 2014 at 3:01 pm
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I agree to a point.


My SO flew from CMI this week, and thought she was getting a deal ($300 R/T to Fort Myers). But Spirit's R/T on the same day was $48.99 each way.

cretis16 wrote on January 19, 2014 at 1:01 pm

About every 3 or 4 years this same article runs in the News-Gazette. They must have a template somewhere that they pull up. Same old story. Why spend thousands on consultants to tell us what every one knows. It's too expensive to fly from CMI, plain and simple. The only ones that can afford Williard are University folks who have no concern on budget ( really 5.2 Million in airfare from U of I alone?). Do a simple Hotwire search on airfares and discover as many posters have noted...the roundrip to ORD, is the same as the roundtrip to Florida or New York from ORD?..absolutely crazy. WE missed the boat along time ago when Bloomington moved into the picture.....lazy, pompous CMI knew that had the U of I monopoly and thought they could maintain the ridiculous parking fees and fares along with giverment subsidies. This airport is doomed. I'll save this post when the story runs again in a few years.

ERE wrote on January 19, 2014 at 7:01 pm
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Bruce Walden's comment pretty much sums it up as to why Willard continues to flounder.

If there was better service, charging for parking would be a non-issue??

No Bruce, you simply are not listening. BWI has much better service AND free parking.

It's central Illinois. Parking should be FREE with a flight from CMI.

Until Bruce gets fired or retires, expect the same lameness.

Admin at the U of I never pay for their own flights or parking, so they remain mired in  their cluelessness....


ROB McCOLLEY wrote on January 19, 2014 at 7:01 pm
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Yeah, but BWI is all the way out there in Maryland.

pattsi wrote on January 19, 2014 at 10:01 pm

The November 2011 airport study prepared for the CCEDC by the Sixtel Counsulting  Group, Inc. can be read here   http://www.champaigncountyedc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Airport-Stu...

jlc wrote on January 19, 2014 at 10:01 pm

I always laugh at how hung up people get on parking charges. It's $5 a day. For a week-long trip, that's $35. That's not worth two hours of driving to Bloomington and back, and it's a lot cheaper than parking at Indy or O'Hare. Similarly-sized airports in La Crosse ($7), Rochester, MN ($8-10), Toledo ($8-10), and Binghamton ($8-10) all charge more. Bloomington is the exception, not the rule.

It's obvious from the stats at the end of the article that parking is a major source of revenue for the airport. What services should they cut in order to provide free parking?

cjwinla wrote on January 20, 2014 at 9:01 am

The only way to make this airport successful is to pay or it through a countywide property tax dedicated to an airport authority . That's how Bloomington does it. But they have a more business centered population and understand te need for quality air transportation. Champaign County residents are more against taxes than progress. That's why Bloomington has better high school facilities too. Champaign has an anti tax attitude that keeps many of its infrastructure and government facilities sub standard . If you are not willing to pay for an airport through property taxes, then the airport will wither on a vine. 

Mr Dreamy wrote on January 20, 2014 at 6:01 pm

It's simple. If it's profitable, airlines, just like any other business, will enter the market. If it's not profitable, airlines won't enter the market.

If a community wants to subsidize the company, that's money that the airline, or any other business, can use to reduce its cost or increase its profit.

Companies aren't in the business to lose money. Quit wasting electrons until you understand basic economics.

dadogg wrote on January 21, 2014 at 1:01 pm

I don't care about $5 for parking, and even pay a few more dollars for the flight.  I like being able to get off a flight and be home in ten minutes and I am willing to pay for it.


BlahBlahBlah2013 wrote on January 22, 2014 at 5:01 pm

A couple suggestions:

1) Change the name. Seriously....c'mon guys. Willard? Might as well call it, "Fred's Airport." C'mon in fellas. Enjoy your flight. Times change. Respect the past but names count. Image counts. Shallow? Nope. Smart. You want to be taken seriously? Get a serious name. State Farm Regional Airport of Champaign-Urbana. Now that has a nice ring to it :-)

2) Scrap the parking fees. This isn't Indy or Chicago. It's Champaign (Savoy). We aren't talking prime real estate here guys. The airport sits in the middle of a damn corn field. Nobody wants to be like Carle Hospital and screw their own customers for personal gain. Just scrap it already. Free parking for all!! Hooray!!

3) Come up with a catchy ad campaign. Some ideas:

"Fly Willard. It ain't much but it's all we got."

"Sure. It's cheaper to fly out of Chicago, Indy, St. Louis...or Bloomington, Peoria. Wait. What was our point again?"

"Fly Willard and get free football tickets!!" This one might not work because, well, it's Illinois football and they, well, suck. But the tickets are free so maybe someone will take us up on it. Especially if it's early in the season and a nice day and you have nothing better to do.

"Do you really want to fly out of a city that signs Jay Cutler to a 7 year contract extension? Fly local. Fly Willard."

Ok. Get to work guys. There's lots to do! Good luck!



just_wondering wrote on February 05, 2014 at 10:02 pm

Quit wasting money on Willard Airport. BMI has blown it away for years. Just shut down Willard and the UI employees can fly from BMI. It will likely be cheaper for them to fly from BMI - lower airfares, more airlines/more choices (even more will come if Willard closes and the volume consolidates to BMI), free parking, certainly a cheap bus service to BMI would evolve. UIUC owns Willard and UIUC employees get reimbursed for their parking (plus 58.5% overhead when charged to a federal grant!) which does NOT go to the airport but goes to the UIUC Parking Mafia - it's simply CONVENIENCE and not in the best interest of the taxpayer. 

Champaign is not a destination. People mostly don't come to Champaign - people use Willard airport mostly to leave Champaign. This will not change - it has been this way for decades and will be this way for decades to come. BMI has State Farm - a Fortune 100 Company, that drives its volume. Face it and embrace it. You are not Silicon Valley, you are not Austin, you are not even Bloomington-Normal. Austin has seen many years of INCREASING air traffic and the airport has its OWN funds to expand because it is PROFITABLE - because Austin is a destination. Champaign is NOT a destination - face it and embrace it. Quit wasting money. Quit wasting UIUC money. Quit wasting State of Illinois money. Just quit. Know when to walk away.