CHAMPAIGN – A year and a half ago, the Champaign-Urbana community agreed to offer as much as $1.35 million in revenue guarantees to persuade Delta Air Lines to begin service at Willard Airport.
At first, the tactic appeared to be a great success. Delta attracted a lot of passengers with introductory low-cost fares to its Cincinnati hub. The new service didn't seem to hurt ridership on other airlines serving Champaign-Urbana. Overall ridership at Willard increased.
But in the past nine months, Delta encountered some turbulence. Like other major airlines struggling in the wake of 9/11, Delta was hurting financially. High fuel costs helped send the Atlanta-based airline into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid-September.
Delta made cuts in domestic flights and trimmed service at Cincinnati by about 26 percent. But no flights to Champaign-Urbana were eliminated. The airline still offers three flights a day to and from Willard Airport through Delta's Comair subsidiary.
However, fares on Delta's Champaign-Urbana route crept up early this year, and ridership slipped. In summer 2004, it was common for 70 percent of Delta seats to be filled; in July and August of this year, the percentage on the route dipped below 40 percent.
Gene Barton, the University of Illinois associate vice chancellor whose responsibilities include Willard Airport, attributes part of the ridership slip to American Eagle's new direct service to Dallas-Fort Worth. American began daily service April 4.
Barton said Delta's passenger drop resulted from a "combination of fares as well as the Dallas connection."
Meanwhile, Delta riled some community leaders by announcing it will add service in Bloomington-Normal, 45 miles away.
Beginning Dec. 1, Delta will compete with low-cost carrier AirTran and offer three flights a day between Bloomington-Normal and Atlanta. The flights will be operated by Delta subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines.
The fact that Bloomington-Normal got the new service for free while Champaign-Urbana was helping to underwrite Delta service here irked Tom Costello, chairman of the Champaign County Economic Development Corp.'s board of directors.
When a Delta/Comair representative met with Willard Airport officials on Sept. 7, Costello voiced his complaint.
"I told her I didn't think that was quite right," Costello said.
Still, he's not confident the message will get through to Delta decision-makers.
"Much of the top management has already bailed," he said. "There's very short institutional memory."
Barton said he too was surprised when Delta started up service in Bloomington-Normal.
"I was a bit taken aback based on our relationship," he said. "Unfortunately, conversations with airlines are only as good as the ending sentence."
Under the agreement that took effect May 14, 2004, the University of Illinois agreed to provide Delta with two years of revenue guarantees for serving the Champaign-Urbana market.
Contributing money to the effort were several local organizations, including Champaign County's economic development corporation, regional planning commission, chamber of commerce and convention and visitors bureau.
Champaign County's business community also agreed to support Delta service by making $900,000 in commitments to a ticket trust. Those commitments help ensure that a certain number of seats will be filled.
Barton said no decision has been made yet about whether the university and community will continue to underwrite Delta service once the two years are up.
"I have to sit and talk with the chancellor (Richard Herman), the two mayors (Jerry Schweighart of Champaign and Laurel Prussing of Urbana) and the head of the EDC (Jeanne Gustafson) about that," Barton said.
Still, Barton is pleased that Delta and Northwest Airlines, both of which filed for Chapter 11 reorganization, haven't cut service to Champaign-Urbana.
"As of two weeks ago, Delta was not making any changes and Northwest was not making any changes," he said.
However, things continue to change in the airline industry. On Thursday, Mesaba Aviation, which operates the local Northwest Airlink flights for Northwest Airlines, filed for Chapter 11 protection. "This action will not impact our day-to-day business operations," Mesaba President John Spanjers said in a news release.
Earlier in the week, American Airlines indicated it may shrink its hub at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport if rival Southwest Airlines proceeds with plans to offer an array of new flights from Love Field in Dallas. A study commissioned by American identified cities in several states that could lose service as a result. Champaign-Urbana was too new a destination to be included in the study.
Barton said he's happy about the popularity of American's new service to Dallas-Fort Worth, but remains leery about the long-term future of American Connection service to St. Louis.
When American Airlines took over TWA's operations, it inherited the St. Louis hub, rebranded TWA as American Connection and sharply scaled back operations there.
"The St. Louis connection is probably getting iffy," Barton said. "It's not at full capacity, and the St. Louis hub is being downgraded."
Willard is currently served by American Eagle, with seven flights a day to Chicago and one daily flight to Dallas; American Connection, with two flights a day to St. Louis; Northwest Airlink, with three daily flights to Detroit; and Delta/Comair, with three flights a day to Cincinnati.
Barton said he's in contact not only with airlines serving Willard, but others as well.
What he'd really like to land, he said, is an airline with a direct flight to Washington, D.C. That would appeal to many UI researchers and foundation employees, he said.
Barton said local officials monitor air fares at Willard and the Bloomington, Decatur and Indianapolis airports.
"Any time we see anything out of line, we get hold of them (the airlines) immediately," he said.
Costello said local communities really don't have much control over airlines deciding to begin or end service.
"Unless you want to underwrite flights – routinely, that's the only way to ensure air service," he said.
Some area business people say expanded air service in Bloomington-Normal can, in some ways, be viewed as a plus for Champaign-Urbana.
Van Dukeman, president of Main Street Bank & Trust in Champaign, noted that "O'Hare Airport, from a time standpoint, is farther away from central Chicago than Central Illinois Regional Airport (in Bloomington) is from Champaign County."
"It's great that we have Delta and want to have good service here, but there's nothing wrong with promoting the fact that we have another good airport 45 minutes from Champaign," he said. "That's definitely another transportation alternative for folks trying to get to Champaign County."