Wanted: Management firm for Willard

Wanted: Management firm for Willard

SAVOY — An outside management company could be hired by midsummer to run Willard Airport, a key recommendation of a recent plan to improve airport service.

The University of Illinois is preparing an RFP, or request for proposals, for airport management firms and hopes to post it within a month, said Associate Chancellor Michael DeLorenzo.

The company will run airport operations — negotiating with airlines, marketing Willard and managing the terminal, taxis and the like. But Flightstar will remain Willard's "fixed base operator," providing fuel and aircraft maintenance, he said.

The hope is to sign a three- to five-year contract, he said.

The UI decided to outsource airport operations rather than hire its own chief executive officer to run the airport, the two short-term alternatives suggested by a task force that reviewed Willard's operations last year. If the process fails to find a qualified management firm, though, the campus will immediately launch a search for a CEO, he said.

"The revenue sources on the operations side are limited, so we're not sure what we'll get," DeLorenzo said Tuesday.

The task force, suggested by Chancellor Phyllis Wise, met for most of 2014 to consider ways to expand air service, better market the airport, improve ground transportation to and from Willard and address other issues. The panel gave its report to Wise in December, and she later endorsed its recommendations.

Long-term, the report suggested Willard be governed by an airport authority, with the goal of making it self-sustaining. Created and owned by the university since its early days in the 1950s, Willard Airport receives a subsidy of about $440,000 annually from the UI.

DeLorenzo and Jack Penning of Sixel Consulting have been on an outreach tour to local municipal bodies and business groups in recent days to discuss the findings and next steps.

Penning said a management firm or independent CEO with decision-making authority on the ground is key to improving "airport responsiveness."

Currently, he said, "no one is responsible" when people complain about the airport on social media.

"For a long time, the airport was walled off from the community. There was no one to talk to. That's over," he said.

The task force, led by former Champaign City Manager Steve Carter, has transitioned into an Airport Advisory Board, with representatives from area municipalities, the UI, Parkland College, businesses and civic groups. Several subcommittees have also been created, to work on governance, marketing, operations and regional development.

The plan is to roll out a new marketing campaign in August based on the new "Fly Champaign-Urbana" brand, complete with a logo in Illini colors, to convince passengers to "check us first," Penning said. The study showed that most passengers Willard loses to other airports go to Indianapolis and Chicago, though Bloomington-Normal was a bigger competitor before it lost its low-cost airlines.

The emphasis of the new brand is on the two major cities in the region, he said, though "we're not dropping the name of the airport," said Penning.

At a presentation before the Economic Development Corp. on Tuesday, Penning was asked if the panel considered phasing out the UI's subsidy, given the university's current budget constraints.

That's the long-term goal, he said, but the task force was unable to find a way to bridge the financial gap in the meantime.

"If we separate right now, the airport would essentially default on its debt, and that's unacceptable," he said.

An airport authority would have taxing authority, requiring voter approval, and the task force decided "there was no appetite" for that right now given other needs like a new Champaign high school, DeLorenzo said.

"Everybody wants free parking, but nobody wants a property tax," Penning said.

One possibility raised by the task force was a hotel-motel tax. DeLorenzo said that's still on the table for the advisory group to consider.

Another item on the agenda is improving taxi service — by seeking new regulations on cab appearance, driver training in customer service, and encouraging cabs to accept credit cards.

The regional development subcommittee will also explore how to protect Willard's runways, possibly by acquiring "strategic parcels" over time. Officials also plan to improve the appearance of approaches to the airport.

Other tidbits from Tuesday's meeting:

— In 2014, 75 percent of Willard's flights were on time, the best mark of any downstate airport, Penning said. The average delay was about 25 minutes.

— While the UI accounts for a large chunk of Willard's traffic, a survey of 12 major businesses found they had generated 19,000 trips in 2014, he said.

— Willard fills 86 percent of the seats on its flights; price and seat availability are the biggest factors when passengers are deciding which airport to use, he said.

— Airport officials are meeting with major carriers at least every other month to land more flights. High on the list is Washington, D.C., especially for UI travelers. All slots at Reagan National are filled, but Dulles is a possibility, along with other East Coast destinations like Newark and Charlotte, a "huge" American hub, Penning said.

— Willard is also hoping to capture more vacationing travelers, who are sensitive to higher fares, he said. A $75 per-ticket price difference for a family of four is enough to make someone drive to Indianapolis or Chicago, he said. One possibility is a low-cost flight to Florida.

— Airlines are retiring their 50-seat jets, meaning Willard should see larger jets within a year.

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catsrule wrote on April 29, 2015 at 10:04 am

In the long term, Willard will benefit if an airport authoirty with taxing authority is created, something nearly all airports with commercial service have.   Good to see action being taken on recommendations from the consulants.   In 1993, airport consulting firm Nammack Associates produced a very comprehensive report for Willard (the findings and recommendations of which were largely ignored). One item from this report which should be revisited involves having UIUC develop policies directing use of Willard for most official travel, with the lattitude for reasonable exceptions.  Michigan State University promulgated similar policies directing the use of the Lansing Airport, which has benefited from such. 

Sid Saltfork wrote on April 29, 2015 at 3:04 pm

Geo. Carlin and Associates formerly with Ozark Airlines would be a good pick.  The university owns an ailing airport that the citizens continue to bail out.  Why keep throwing good money at a money pit?