Vision Airlines' service was a shot of optimism for Willard Airport. It didn't last long.
Vision Airlines' brief service to Champaign-Urbana demonstrates once again the difficulty that Willard Airport has in attracting and keeping air carriers.
Vision Airlines, based in Atlanta, focuses on direct flights to leisure destinations. Last October, the airline announced it would offer discount flights from Willard to the Ft. Myers, Fla., area from Dec. 19 through March 31.
Clay Meek, Vision's director of sales and marketing, said at the time that Champaign-Urbana seemed a good candidate for the service given its population base, disposable income and "attachment with south Florida."
But by early December, the airline evidently decided that C-U was not such a good candidate after all and said it would end service in early January. Vision offered little explanation other than that due to unforeseen circumstances, the aircraft serving Willard would not be available after Jan. 6.
Willard has been at an obvious competitive disadvantage against larger airports offering more and cheaper flights. A recent study showed that Willard had the highest one-way average fare of any airport in Illinois or Indiana. People from the Champaign-Urbana area, particularly leisure travelers, long ago became accustomed to driving to Bloomington, Indianapolis, or Chicago and that is not likely to change anytime soon. Many don't bother to check prices of flights at Willard anymore.
But even Bloomington, with its Central Illinois Regional Airport held up as the model with free parking and sharply lower air fares, suffered a blow when Southwest Airlines purchased Air Tran last fall and announced it would end service in June. The pullout of the discount carrier leaves American Eagle and Delta. Air Tran set the price points for service to Atlanta in competition with Delta, and it's quite possible that Delta will raise prices, lessening BMI's advantage over Willard and other central Illinois airports.
At least Vision's short stay at Willard won't cost much, around $15,000 in advertising and marketing services and some waived fees. In contrast, in 2004 the university and other community organizations offered Delta a $1.35 million revenue guarantee for two years of service at Willard.
Even in the face of these difficulties, it's important for the community to maintain service at Willard. One of the key findings of a consultant's report earlier this year was the importance of maintaining air service at Willard for business travelers. Currently, American Eagle serves Willard with five flights daily to Chicago and one to Dallas-Ft. Worth. These flights are well-used. Given the volatile economics and continued consolidation of the airline industry, local officials should put their energy into holding on to the service we have.