SAVOY — When Willard Airport added United flights to Chicago last June, officials hoped they wouldn't take away passengers from American.
So far they haven't.
American Airlines' load factor, which is roughly the percentage of seats filled on each flight from Willard, increased from 80.2 percent in 2016 to 81.5 last year.
"That's good news because it means United did not take away from American's performance," said Gene Cossey, the airport's executive director. "United is capturing lost passengers, or recovering leakage. It's mostly those people who otherwise had been driving somewhere else."
American did have about 3,500 fewer departing passengers in 2017, but Cossey said that was mostly due to it dropping a couple flights for a few months as it was having issues juggling planes and pilots.
Between June, when United Airlines began service at Willard, through the end of 2017, it carried 16,896 passengers out of the University of Illinois-owned airport. That drove the 12 percent increase in departing passengers at Willard last year and pushed it over the 100,000 mark for the first time since 2007.
United's flights haven't been as full as American's, with load factors trending around 52 percent, Cossey said, and a peak in October at 75 percent.
"It varied a bit, which is expected" for a recently added airline, Cossey said.
Officials say the growth is the result of the intergovernmental task force from around 2014 that sought to revitalize the airport.
"One of the big aspects of that was to bring more air service into this community," said Mike DeLorenzo, senior associate chancellor at the UI. "I don't think we're done, but I think we've been successful."
In the past year, United added three daily flights to Chicago and American added a second flight to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and maintained its six daily flights to O'Hare through the winter.
Lori Gold Patterson, who owns Pixo in Urbana, appreciates the new options and has been flying out of Willard more often.
"For the last year-and-a-half, most of my flights have been out of Champaign," she said. "They were never out of Champaign before that, usually O'Hare and Bloomington."
Last weekend, though, she was looking for flights to Atlanta and ended up choosing to fly there directly from Bloomington-Normal's Central Illinois Regional Airport.
"I couldn't justify the difference," she said. "I think it was $100 more leaving out of Champaign, and then I would have had a layover in Chicago."
With United and American competing on flights to Chicago, prices should come down. Cossey said he hasn't received any reports yet from the airlines about average ticket prices, but said anecdotally he's seeing lower prices when he's looked for tickets.
Down in Bloomington
While Bloomington's airport picked up Patterson as a passenger, overall it saw a decrease in departing passengers in 2017, according to deputy marketing director Fran Strebing.
"We were down last year 12.4 percent," she said, attributing that to some decreased capacity on Delta flights and other factors.
"There's been some changes in our market," she said.
While Bloomington's airport has free parking, Patterson said the $5 a day at Willard hasn't been a problem and wasn't a factor in her recent ticket purchase.
"I usually have somebody drop me off" at Willard, she said.
The Willard task force's market research said the Savoy airport wasn't losing too many passengers to Bloomington and that the parking fee wasn't a significant deterrent.
For Willard to add free parking, Cossey said, it would need to become an airport authority with taxing powers, like Bloomington's has.
At other central Illinois airports, "everybody in the community pays for parking because it's a part of their taxes," Cossey said. At Willard, only people who park pay for parking, which provides an important revenue stream.
The pilot problem
For 2018, Cossey hopes ridership continues to increase and to add more flights and destinations, but he said the industry is facing a shortage of pilots, which could make that difficult.
"There's a general pilot shortage," he said, as Congress recently raised the hours of experience needed to become an airline pilot. Pilots are also required to retire at age 65.
"We now have more airplanes than crews to fly them," Cossey said.
But he thinks there's still unmet demand at Willard, especially with potential leisure travel.
"The majority of our traffic is business travel, either university business or business related to the university or businesses that are based here," Cossey said. "There is some leisure travel, but that's where most of our leakage is, either to Chicago or Indianapolis."