SAVOY — An experiment to bring a discount carrier to Willard Airport cost the University of Illinois about $117,000.
As part of its contract with Vision Airlines, the university agreed to a revenue guarantee that promised the UI would pay the airline up to $34,425 per round trip if the airline did not sell enough seats on flights between Savoy and Charlotte County Airport in Punta Gorda, Fla.
Atlanta-based Vision Airlines announced last October it would offer twice-weekly flights to the Florida airport, north of Fort Myers, from Dec. 19 through the end of March. The airline kicked off the flights in December, but the airline's presence at the University of Illinois airport was an abbreviated one.
Before the flights even began, the university confirmed Vision's flights to Florida would end Jan. 6 — three weeks into the schedule — because planes were unavailable to the carrier.
Although some of the initial flights were full or close to being full, the remaining flights had few passengers, prompting the university to pay the airline.
"For a variety of reasons, this particular service with this airline did not meet expectations," said Bruce Walden, director of real estate services for the university, which owns the airport. "We continue to review what might make sense for this market and hope to work in the future with the broader community, much as Bloomington-Normal has done recently, to pursue air service opportunities," he said.
After Southwest Airlines bought AirTran, the airline announced it would pull out of Central Illinois Regional Airport at Bloomington- Normal. Organizers with the McLean County Chamber of Commerce's Community Air Service Initiative raised nearly $500,000 to attract other carriers to the airport. And earlier this year, Allegiant Air announced nonstop jet service between Bloomington and Sanford, Fla., northeast of Orlando. Frontier Airlines also recently announced it would offer flights to and from Denver and Orlando later this year.
The announcement of new air service to Bloomington quickly followed Southwest's announcement that it would end AirTran service there, said Seamus Reilly, a Parkland College administrator who co-chairs the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation's airport committee.
"In order to do that requires money, a marketing plan," he said.
Such incentives are not unheard of for regional airports. In 2004 the University of Illinois and other community organizations offered Delta a $1.35 million revenue guarantee for the airline's first two years serving Willard.
Last year, the Champaign County Economic Development Corp. hired Sixel Consulting to review options for the airport's future. Suggestions included creating an airport authority or making the airport a department within a city or county government, or having a private company, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District or regional planning commission, manage the airport.
No plan has been drafted for the future of the airport, Reilly said, but the group of people talking about it will grow. In order to support Willard Airport, it will require larger involvement of the community, he said.
"We're interested in expanding the number of people in the conversation about what are the possibilities for supporting the airport," Reilly said.
In the meantime, beginning in April, American Eagle will add one more daily flight to Chicago from Willard Airport, according to Walden.
This story appeared in print on March 11.