For Willard, landing United flights 'opens up everything'

For Willard, landing United flights 'opens up everything'

SAVOY — Beginning in June, travelers will be able to go from Savoy to Maui, Hong Kong, Mexico City and other international destinations with just one stop in between.

Twenty-seven one-stop destinations not currently served at Willard Airport will be added June 8, when United Airlines begins offering flights to and from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

The new United Express service will include three daily flights with a combined 150 daily seats, the airline said. Willard already has American Eagle, which has several flights daily to O'Hare and one to Dallas-Fort Worth.

"It's huge to have a second airline because people have points, airline miles, loyalties and other reasons why they pick the airlines, and this gives us more options," said Craig Rost, executive director of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation.

Two days before Monday's official announcement, tickets were already on sale for the United Express flights in and out of the University of Illinois-owned airport in Savoy.

United is the world's largest airline in terms of cities served, with flights to 360 cities on five continents. O'Hare, United's largest domestic hub, provides direct service to 208 destinations — 153 domestic, 55 international.

Willard Executive Director Gene Cossey said adding United's O'Hare hub "opens up new markets that were very difficult to get to before."

"Now, it opens up everything," he said.

The new flights to O'Hare are scheduled to align with United's main departure blocks to allow for easier connections, Cossey said.

While Cossey said he's pleased with the new service, he'll continue pursuing new destinations.

"We're always talking with them about other destinations," he said. "If this is extremely successful, then they will look at opening up a market probably. They'll look at the East Coast and the West Coast markets, if this works really well for them, which we're very optimistic that it will be."

Next stop: Washington?

UI Chancellor Robert Jones said the airport is still hoping to attract a third carrier and a nonstop flight to another destination, likely on the East Coast.

"It will probably take another year or two to get that done, but we remain committed to utilize and advance this asset ... to better serve the university and the university community," Jones told faculty senators Monday.

UI faculty and administrators travel frequently to Washington, D.C., though all slots at Reagan National Airport are filled. Charlotte, N.C., a hub for American, has been floated as a possibility, as well as Newark, N.J.

The new United service should help reduce the number of people who drive to Indianapolis or Chicago airports instead of using Willard, said Steve Carter, chair of the Willard Airport Advisory Board, which should in turn help Willard attract more flights.

"You look at how full the planes are leaving here. They're almost all 90, 95, 100 percent full, and so you think, if we had more flights, people would use this airport more," Carter said. "If it's successful, then we can show people that we have people buying tickets. ... So we think if you add another flight, you'll be successful as well."

Willard was able to add United's service without any incentives or revenue guarantees, Cossey said.

"United is operating these all at their own risk," he said. "There's no subsidies, no revenue guarantees, nothing like that involved."

Willard 'more visible'

Willard still has a federal grant available, Carter said, but that can only be used to help it expand to a new destination.

"We couldn't have used that even if United had wanted it," Carter said. "That's still out there to offer an airline that offers a different destination."

In 2014, a Carter-chaired task force issued 14 recommendations to reboot the airport, including hiring an administrator, automating parking, adding new service and rebranding the airport.

Cossey was hired as a result of these recommendations, which Carter said helped land new flights.

"It's something the university had started doing, but didn't have one person responsible for," Carter said. "One of the things Gene's been able to do as airport director is regularly, quarterly meeting with airlines and promoting additional service for our area."

With the addition of United, renewed marketing efforts and the recent opening of Einstein Bros. Bagels at the airport, Rost said the story of Willard is starting to change.

"I think it's more visible," he said. "It looks to be more of a true story to people who live in the community. They see the buzz around it."

The departure schedule for the new flights between Champaign-Urbana and Chicago is: 5:45 a.m., 1:45 p.m. and 5:20 p.m.

Arrivals from O'Hare are scheduled for 12:15 p.m., 3:50 p.m. and 8:55 p.m.

Staff writer Julie Wurth contributed to this report.