Big challenge for Willard task force

Big challenge for Willard task force

The old saying "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" could be the credo for a task force studying how to get a bigger bang for our bucks from the University of Illinois' Willard Airport.

If it was just a matter of wishing it was so, Willard Airport would be a happenin' place — with convenient, price-competitive air service to multiple airline hubs across the nation.

But try as the University of Illinois and local municipal officials might, it just hasn't worked out, at least so far. Rather than give up, the community is trying again.

UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise is hoping the university-run airport can be transformed into an engine for economic development, and a 19-member task force has been appointed to study the issue.

Led by former Champaign City Manager Steve Carter, the group is a who's who from the university, local municipal and county governments and the private sector. Over the next year, members of the group will examine how to keep the air service Willard already has as well as attract additional service. It also will examine possible changes in the governance structure of Willard, including whether the airport should continue to be run by the university.

As is often the case in inquiries of this sort, a consultant will be retained and his findings will drive the task force's recommendations.

Nearly 90,000 passengers boarded flights at Willard in 2012, a large number but down significantly from 118,000 in 2004. But even that figure at Willard is less than half the number of enplanements (240,181) at the Bloomington-Normal airport in 2012.

While certainly more convenient for local business and vacation travelers, Willard is perceived as, and often is, more expensive to fly, so much so that it's worth the time and effort expended for travelers to use Bloomington-Normal, Indianapolis or Chicago.

The additional disincentive to using Willard is that its flights are limited to Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth.

There is no question that lower costs and more flights would be a boon for consumers and provide a boost for economic development possibilities. But the nation's four major airlines, down from 11 airlines in 2000, are in business to make a profit, and they won't be interested in making a big investment here unless they can be convinced that it's in their financial interest to do so.

And that's the rub. Or to put it another way, which comes first, the chicken or the egg.

Will more flights draw more passengers? Or will more passengers draw more flights?

Past efforts to expand service have ended in disappointment. That's why some people are skeptical about another effort by another group to examine the same issue.

But hope springs eternal. Willard clearly delivers to the community only a fraction of what it might.

But Carter's task force is filled with smart, successful people who will examine the issue. Perhaps they, with assistance from their consultant, will come up with some ideas that will get Willard closer to where the community would like it to be.

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pattsi wrote on January 22, 2014 at 6:01 am