United cancels service at Willard; pilot shortage cited

United cancels service at Willard; pilot shortage cited

SAVOY — Barely a year after Willard Airport added flights from United Airlines, the carrier is canceling service at the University of Illinois-owned facility.

Willard Executive Director Gene Cossey confirmed the cancellation Monday.

“September 4 will be their last day of service for a while,” he said. “At this point, we don’t know what their plans will be after that.”

He blamed a nationwide pilot shortage.

“It’s impacting all their regional carriers. They’re not able to provide enough flights to the markets they want to provide flights to right now,” he said.

Last June, United began three daily flights with a combined 150 daily seats between Willard and O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

It joined American Airlines’ service from Willard to O’Hare and Dallas-Ft. Worth and helped Willard increase the number of departing passengers last year by 12 percent.

“They’ve been a great partner,” Cossey said.

But then “we got a call Friday morning out of the blue,” he said.

Willard will be one of three regional airports around the U.S. to lose United service to O’Hare beginning Sept. 5, according to United spokeswoman Rachael Rivas, along with those in Mobile, Ala., and Manchester, N.H.

“As we continue to maximize our domestic network and best serve our customers, we are adjusting some of our regional flying to three cities from our Chicago hub this fall,” Rivas said in a statement. “These schedule changes will allow us to continue our focus on providing customers the flights and connection opportunities they value most.”

Airlines have been struggling with a pilot shortage since at least 2013, when a new rule from Congress raised the number of training hours airline pilots needed from 250 to 1,500. That, along with a requirement to retire at age 65, has led to airlines scrambling at times to find pilots.

“It’s becoming more difficult for people to become a new airline pilot,” Cossey said. “We’re looking at a large reduction of the number of pilots over the next five, 10 years.”

Even while it was here, United’s service may have suffered because of the shortage, Cossey said.

“United had a few flights canceled or reallocated,” he said. “I’m not sure if that’s because of the pilot shortage or other reasons, but there were a few here or there, sometimes for the weather.”

And last year, American dropped a couple flights for a couple months while it was juggling planes and pilots, Cossey said in February.

When Willard announced last February that United was returning for the first time since 1993, officials were optimistic that it would lead to more airlines and more flights.

“We’re always talking with them about other destinations,” Cossey said at the time. “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.”

Just last week, area officials touted a 10-year record in enplanements and adding service from United at Willard in countering Gov. Bruce Rauner’s remarks in a radio interview about Champaign-Urbana not being able to retain tech businesses because it had “no convenient transportation” and other perceived issues. (Rauner apologized to C-U officials and is set to visit three area businesses Tuesday.)

The United service appeared to be doing well, adding customers without taking away from American.

In 2017, American’s load factor, which is a rough measure of how full its flights are, increased from 80.2 percent to 81.5, Cossey said earlier this year.

United’s flights were about 52 percent full last year, Cossey said, with its load factor reaching 75 percent in October.

In May, Cossey said there’s plenty of demand for new flights and airlines.

“There’s a million people a year who want to fly in and out of our area, and we only have about 300,000 seats,” Cossey said in May.

So Friday’s call from United was particularly devastating.

“It’s extremely disappointing. It’s a big setback for all the growth that we’ve done,” Cossey said. “We understand that some things are outside United’s control.”

Customers will still be able to book United flights through Sept. 4, Cossey said, and Rivas said United will be reaching out to anyone who booked flights after that to offer alternatives or refunds.

About a dozen people worked for United at Willard, Cossey said.

“They will have to be relocated, if they want to continue with them,” he said.