Willard report: Traffic on the rise, Bloomington not a threat
SAVOY — True or false: Champaign area travelers prefer to drive to Bloomington and fly out of that airport because the parking is free and fares are cheaper.
Talk with locals about Willard Airport and most likely someone will say something to that effect: people use Central Illinois Regional Airport. A lot.
But here's the reality: the top airport of choice for people who bought plane tickets last year in the Champaign-Urbana-Danville region was Indianapolis. And most likely, it's because the travelers prefer nonstop flights or they can find cheaper fares there, according to an airline industry consultant.
A task force charged with examining strategies for expanding air service and coming up with recommendations for funding, marketing and governance options for the University of Illinois-owned Willard Airport has just begun reviewing a strategic report, including a market analysis. So far, the research has yielded some surprises and dispelled a few local claims.
"There's this big red herring in Champaign that Bloomington (airport) is this giant sucking sound you hear because of the free parking. It's absolutely not the case," said Jack Penning of Oregon-based Sixel Consulting Group.
Another surprise: Willard had fewer cancellations compared with other airports in central Illinois, according to Penning.
The UI and Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District hired Sixel to develop a strategic plan for the airport. The task force of about 20 — which includes government officials and people from the UI, Parkland College, area businesses and organizations — is expected to make several recommendations to Chancellor Phyllis Wise by the end of the year.
It has been and will continue to debate in the coming months a slew of issues, including: parking (and whether or not it should be free, pricier or feature perks such as a frequent user program); the pros and cons of developing land around the airport; concessions in the terminal; improving taxi service; how to better brand or market Willard; and most importantly, the cost of expanding air service.
"The word of mouth in the community is Bloomington, Bloomington, Bloomington," said Steve Carter, the retired Champaign city manager who chairs the task force. "(The report) is a good example of why having real data is important because if you just go by the perception or the word on the street, you could be working off bad information."
It turns out, only 6 percent of area travelers drive to Bloomington to fly in and out of Central Illinois Regional Airport.
Of those who bought plane tickets last year in the region — which encompasses Champaign and Vermilion Counties, plus parts of Douglas, Moultrie, Piatt, Edgar and Ford counties, and Vermillion and Warren counties in Indiana — only 33 percent, or 161,290, flew in and out of Willard, paying an average fare of $307, according to Sixel.
Thirty-five percent, or 170,748, headed to Indianapolis, where they paid an average fare of $229. (When you're buying tickets for a family of four, the difference between $229 and $307 adds up.)
Sixteen percent, or 77,470 people, drove to Chicago's O'Hare, where the average fare for area travelers was $263.
"People do not 'leak' (or go to another airport) because parking is free," Penning said. "They leak because the fare is lower or there's a nonstop flight. Most of our people drive to Indy because there's lower average fares. Indy may not have as many destinations as Chicago. When people are going on a really long trip, they go to Chicago. When they drive to Bloomington, they'll go on Allegiant Air, which has twice-a-week flights to Orlando, because the fare is so low."
Airports "leak" passengers to other airports all the time, he said. Chicago residents may choose O'Hare over Midway. Indiana residents may choose Cincinnati.
"It's not about ensuring every single trip is taken here," Penning said. "It's about ensuring that people understand to check Champaign first, because it might be a better fare, it might be a better experience," he said.
If the Champaign-Urbana-Danville region could retain, for example, 50 percent of local air travelers, compared with the current rate of around 33 percent, the airport could have three times the number of flights than currently available, he said.
When marketing Willard to the community, the emphasis should be on convenience, said task force member Seamus Reilly, vice president for institutional advancement at Parkland College.
"This is a fantastic airport. If it wasn't here ... we'd be getting up at 5 a.m. to drive (to another airport). It would suck, especially in the winter," he said.
Willard offers six flights daily to Chicago and one flight daily to Dallas/Fort Worth via American Airline's regional carrier, Envoy Air (previously American Eagle).
In the last decade, the number of travelers flying in and out of Willard declined from 222,880 in 2004 to a low of 157,000 in 2011. But since then, passenger counts have been slowing ticking back up. In 2013, it was 169,640. In 2014, Penning expects the number of passengers flying in and out of Willard to be around 200,000.
That would be the best year for Willard since 2007.
Penning attributes the growth to a rebound in the economy. He estimates that American, which operates Envoy, will fill between 85 and 88 percent of available seats between Willard Airport and Chicago. When that number increases to 90, that's when airlines typically look at adding service, he said.
"This market has plenty of demand for service," said UI Associate Chancellor Mike DeLorenzo, a member of the task force and adviser to Wise.
According to Sixel, people buying airplane tickets from Willard's "catchment area" (basically, the Champaign, Urbana and Danville areas) are flying most frequently to Washington or Baltimore (77 people per day each direction), from a variety of airports. That's followed by New York or Newark, the Los Angeles area, San Francisco Bay area and Denver.
When considering service expansions, the consultants recommend airport officials try to land a daily, nonstop flight to an East Coast hub. Penning backs Charlotte as an option.
A secondary priority is to add connections through other hubs that go to West Coast markets.
University officials and Sixel consultants have, going back three years, had more than 40 in-person visits with airline officials about expanding service.
Willard competes against Bloomington, San Luis Obispo, Portland, Maine ... essentially about 350 other airports in the nation with regional service, according to Penning. When considering additional service, airlines will weigh a Champaign-to-Washington leg against a San Francisco-to-Albuquerque.
"There's no one perfect thing we can bring to the carrier that's going make it happen," Penning said.
To make things more complicated, there are fewer carriers, given the recent mergers — and all are essentially still figuring out their footing, said Bill Volk, recently retired managing director of C-U MTD.
"Many of those companies are asking for incentives to come into those markets, and that complicates things as well," Volk said.
The UI has some money to help expand service. In 2012, it was awarded a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Small Community Air Service Program to expand to the East Coast.
But half a million dollars is no longer the average. It's now closer to $2 million to $3 million, Penning said.
Earlier this summer, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation paving the way for the Quad Cities Airport to add daily direct flights to Washington. The Illinois Department of Transportation will give the airport $1.5 million a year, for three years, for that incentive.
All of the data that's been gathered in recent months — will help focus the task force's mission and the university's efforts to expand air service, Carter said. He recently met with Wise, whom he said is eager to get going on this.
Wise "has said the airport is vital to the university and to the community," DeLorenzo said. And the group is studying everything, from marketing to incentives. "We're looking at it all," he said.
Recommendations, including funding options, will be submitted to Wise by the end of the year.
Exploring the numbers
A look at the total number of Champaign-area passengers — and the average fare paid — for the year ending in the third quarter of 2013. (PDEW: passengers per day each way):
AIRPORT PASSENGERS PDEW SHARE AVG. FARE
Willard 161,290 220.9 33.4% $307
Indianapolis 170,748 233.9 35.3% $229
Chicago-O'Hare 77,470 106.1 16.0% $263
Chicago-Midway 41,743 57.2 8.6% $139
Central Illinois (Bloomington) 30,320 41.5 6.3% $235
Lincoln Capital (Springfield) 2,243 3.1 0.5% $245
Source: Air Service Development Master Plan by Sixel Consulting Group.
On the move
Passenger trends at Willard over the last decade
2014: Sixel consultant Jack Penning estimates 200,000.