As United packs up at Willard, American spreads its wings

As United packs up at Willard, American spreads its wings

SAVOY — Willard Airport Executive Director Gene Cossey recently met with American Airlines and figured the earliest it would add service to Charlotte, N.C., would be the end of 2019.

But on Wednesday, American announced flights to and from Charlotte Douglas International Airport would begin Dec. 19 of this year.

"I got called yesterday morning," he said Wednesday. "This did kind of surprise us that it moved this quickly."

The announcement came a little more than a week after United Airlines announced it would be canceling service in September to Willard from Chicago O'Hare International Airport, which Cossey believes may have pushed American to act sooner.

"They didn't say that," he said. "But I believe the timing was escalated due to United leaving. I think they saw there was going to be a gap here, and they wanted to take advantage of that."

American didn't say exactly why it chose to add Charlotte service now.

"We're pleased with the performance of our existing service at Willard Airport, which led to the decision to connect the region with our second-largest hub in Charlotte," spokeswoman Leslie Scott said in an email. "There's not usually just one factor that determines when/where we add service in a market, and that's true for Champaign as well. We make those decisions based on a number of factors, including supply and demand, aircraft availability and the economic environment."

Tickets go on sale Saturday for flights on the 44-seat Embraer 140.

In addition to the daily flight to Charlotte, Willard will have five to six daily flights to Chicago and two daily flights to Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport.

While precise times haven't been set yet, Cossey said they'll likely be early in the morning from Willard and late in the evening from Charlotte, making it easier for travelers to make connecting flights.

American's Charlotte hub has flights to 160 destinations in 25 countries.

"This opens up a lot of opportunities for a lot of our local companies to reach; of course Charlotte, but also the East Coast and some of the internationals as well," said Carly McCrory, executive director of the Champaign County Economic Development Corp.

Developer Peter Fox, who owns several Jimmy John's franchises in North and South Carolina, usually gets there by flying out of Chicago or Indianapolis, so he's looking forward to the new flight.

"Charlotte's on fire in terms of growth, and American's got a great hub there," he said. "It's a very good airport."

For years, Willard officials have said they would like to expand service to Charlotte.

American picked up the hub in 2013, when it merged with US Airways, and a 2014 airport task force report said the top options would be Philadelphia or Charlotte.

Also Wednesday, Willard received a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to reconstruct its taxiway, according to U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville.

The project will likely go out for bid this fall, with construction starting in the spring, Cossey said.

"It's a good-sized grant. This is part of the Federal Aviation Administration's annual grant program," Cossey said. "It will help us build a taxiway that needs to be rebuilt."

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