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SAVOY — The executive director of Willard Airport is looking forward to an increase in travel during the upcoming holiday period, but admits there is a long way to go on the path to a full recovery following the pandemic that led to a 74 percent reduction in passengers.

“We anticipate increased travel during the holidays,” Tim Bannon said. “Last year, the majority of the country was in lockdown with the pandemic. It’s likely holiday travel will increase drastically year over year since vaccinations have rolled out nationally.”

In 2019, Willard’s enplanements were 105,559 passengers. In 2020, it dropped to 35,874 passengers. (Enplanement means the boarding of an aircraft by a revenue passenger, including an original, stopover or transfer boarding of the aircraft).

Bannon is projecting the number of enplanements in 2021 to reach 46,000 by the end of the year, which would be a 28 percent increase from 2020, but still less than half of the 2019 numbers. Because of the decrease in demand, American Airlines, the lone airline that services the University of Illinois-owned airport, reduced daily flight departures.

Earlier this month, the airline ended its service to Charlotte, N.C.

“It was unfortunate to lose our Charlotte flight because we felt it served our market well and we would have liked to keep it,” Bannon said. “Unfortunately, our passenger numbers were too low for the flight. We hope the route gets re-evaluated in 2022 and reinstated when passenger demand for the route returns.”

Flights to Chicago and Dallas-Ft. Worth still occur daily.

“I would still consider the airport in recovery and trending upwards, which is a good indicator of better times ahead,” Bannon said.

Willard isn’t the only airport impacted by the pandemic, but because it caters largely to the business traveler, it was hit harder than most. Lost revenues projected in 2020 was over half a million dollars.

Bloomington’s Central Illinois Regional Airport lost approximately $2 million in revenue amid a 70 percent decrease in passengers in 2020.

Peoria International Airport estimated losses of nearly $1 million and reported a decrease of 69 percent in passenger numbers following the pandemic.

“The vast majority of commercial airports across the country have struggled for the past 18 months,” Bannon said. “Travel demand overall has decreased significantly, and the type of traveler has changed as well. Airports and destinations focused on leisure travel have fared better than airports supported primarily by business travel, because leisure travel has been steady, even throughout the pandemic.

“Willard Airport supports business travel primarily, so we have experienced a significant reduction in travel, and have been harder hit than our peer airports in the region. As business travel continues to increase, we will continue to see improvement in our passenger numbers.”

The airport received $1.8 million in the (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) CARES Act last year for airport capital expenditures, airport operating expenses and airport debt payments.

Bannon called the funding “critical relief” that kept the airport fully functional during the pandemic. The money was used for operating expenses such as staff salaries, maintenance, safety, security and other necessary expenditures.

During the slowdown, the airport entrance roadway was redone and other airfield projects were completed, thanks in part to the additional funding.

But it couldn’t save everything. Hertz, which filed bankruptcy, closed its facility and Einstein Bagels closed temporarily, but re-opened recently.

“They are now open every day of the week except Tuesdays and Saturdays,” Bannon said. “Feedback from our passengers has been great.

“The next move is continuing recovery to our normal flight schedule,” he added. “We are on a reduced flight schedule currently due to passenger demand. Once we recover to 2019 levels, we can push for other flight destinations at that time.”

Prior to the pandemic, there were discussions about adding Washington, D.C. as a destination.

“Washington, D.C. is still in the works, and we believe we have great demand in Champaign County to sustain a profitable roundtrip flight at least daily,” he said.

“We continue to meet with airlines regularly to discuss Washington, D.C., but ultimately it’s in the airline’s hands on whether the destination gets added.”

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