New Willard leader already has wheels up

New Willard leader already has wheels up

SAVOY — With a new director on board, Willard Airport is undergoing a mini-makeover and bigger changes are in the works, officials said Wednesday.

Chief among them: construction of a new, multimillion-dollar Flightstar hangar for servicing bigger jets, to start next spring, and an economic development impact study of the airport, already under way.

Community and business leaders gathered at Willard on Wednesday to welcome airport Executive Director Gene Cossey, who took over this month.

His top priority? Securing additional flights for Willard, with the focus on new routes to the East Coast and a Western hub.

"That's the first question everybody asks," he said.

Charlotte, "a great hub," remains a goal and a strong possibility, offering one-stop connections across the country, Cossey said.

But that effort will likely take months, as airlines have long lead times in planning routes, officials said.

In the meantime, airport planners have fast-tracked the economic impact study, which will try to quantify Willard's impact on the entire county economy, said Craig Rost, executive director of the Champaign County Economic Development Corp.

The airport and Flightstar generate millions of dollars in revenue and it's crucial to have that data "before you take the next step" on marketing and economic development, Rost said.

The hope is to generate a draft report by February, said Steve Carter, who led the task force that drew up the airport's strategic plan and recommended the economic impact study.

It will be led by Sixel Consulting, which also helped draft the strategic plan, and cost $12,000 to $15,000.

The EDC is funding the study with help from a $5,000 grant from the Champaign County Association of Realtors and donations from Champaign, Urbana and Savoy and seven local businesses.

The university has funded the airport since it was established, and it was time for the private sector to step up and participate, Carter and Rost said. Willard is a regional resource, and business travel will be a key factor in its growth, they said.

"This can't happen if we don't all work together," Rost said.

Other developments in the works:

— Flightstar hangar: Airlines are rolling out 75-seat jets in some markets already, but Flightstar's current hangars are too small to service them. Flightstar will pay for the $4.75 million hangar, plus $506,000 to connect it to the existing hangar, Cossey said. The UI essentially covered the $200,000 cost of moving the road to the new hangar by giving Flightstar a break on rent, said UI Associate Chancellor Mike DeLorenzo. The new jets have first-class sections and are bigger than those now landing at Willard, "which we can't stand up in," DeLorenzo said.

— Modernizing the terminal: American Airlines' counter at Willard has a new look and an easier-to-read flight display board. Airport officials hope to spruce up the other desks and the departure lounge, brighten the terminal with new lighting, and add a food kiosk or perhaps a coffee shop to give travelers a food option.

— Parking: Further down the road is an automated parking system, which would allow travelers to pay with credit cards 24/7. Officials have to find a way to pay for it, though it will likely be cheaper in the long run, and advertise for a vendor, DeLorenzo said.

Cossey plans to spend the next few months reaching out to the community, saying he's excited by the airport's broad support. His interest in outreach impressed the hiring committee, Carter said, as it's been lacking in the past.

"To get real changes and make the things happen that the community wants, we need community involvement," Cossey said.

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Sid Saltfork wrote on December 17, 2015 at 1:12 pm

It's the parking cost plus the connecting flights.  A short drive up I-74 gets connecting flights, and free parking.  Unless free parking is offerred, the competition will continue to win out.  The days of university airports are over esspecially for those who no longer have an aviation program.  It is a good example though of academia trying to run a business. 

Sid Saltfork wrote on December 17, 2015 at 1:12 pm

It's the parking cost plus the connecting flights.  A short drive up I-74 gets connecting flights, and free parking.  Unless free parking is offerred, the competition will continue to win out.  The days of university airports are over esspecially for those who no longer have an aviation program.  It is a good example though of academia trying to run a business. 

Sid Saltfork wrote on December 17, 2015 at 1:12 pm

Yeah, I got capcha'ed.

Mqqneyes wrote on December 17, 2015 at 4:12 pm

Sid, may I ask the last time you flew anywhere?

Sid Saltfork wrote on December 18, 2015 at 8:12 am

Phoenix to visit relatives.  Drove to Bloomington, utilized free parking, and had a good connecting flight.  Prior to that, flew from Indianapolis direct.

Since the university owns the airport and field, why not direct flights to D.C.?  The university decided long ago to expand the airport to bring in revenue from the public in order to cover expenses.  The days of university owned airports are over.  A few universities may own a airport, but not many.  I am curious how many universities still have one.  Ozark Airlines with it's hippy-dippy weatherman, George Carlin, provided a good service, but that was years ago in the past.  In today's competitive passenger aviation industry, Willard Airport is a dinosaur.

Where do you fly to?  Do you travel on per diem, or do you pay for it yourself? 

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