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Wanted: an airline to fly a leisure route out of Willard Airport

Main lobby of Willard Airport in Savoy IL

Willard Airport is in the process of raising money to attract an airline that will provide leisure-class passenger service between Champaign-Urbana and tourist destination spots such as Florida. Currently, the airport’s flights are limited to Chicago and Dallas, serving mainly as connection points for travelers.

Leisure-class air service is aimed at travelers flying to tourist destinations for vacation or holiday trips. Fares are usually low, and flights are usually scheduled just a few days a week.

One example of leisure class passenger service is at the Central Illinois Regional Airport (CIRA) in Bloomington, where Allegiant Airlines offers non-stop flights to Orlando and Tampa in Florida, two days a week.

Airport executive director Tim Bannon says they would like to tap into those Champaign-Urbana area residents who are already flying to Florida, Las Vegas and Arizona. Bannon says travel data shows few of those residents are using Willard to make a connecting flight to another city, and few are flying to Florida from Bloomington. Instead, he says those residents are mostly driving to airports in Chicago (and in some cases, Indianapolis) to catch a flight.

“Look at all these passengers that we can capture here at Willard Airport, that are currently driving and flying on a competing airline,” Bannon says.

Champaign County Economic Development Corporation executive director Carly McCrory-McKay chairs Willard Airport’s local advisory board. She says local residents who currently drive to O’Hare or Midway airports in Chicago to avoid the cost of a connecting flight, will find that flying out of Willard will save money in the long run, especially when a direct flight is available.

“We ask everybody to factor in things, like travel time, cost of parking in other airports,” said McCrory-McKay. “And oftentimes, we’ll hear, that by the time people take all of those things in consideration, that at the end of the day, it was actually cheaper to fly out of Willard.”

But attracting an airline to offer a leisure route at Willard will require the airport to offer a Minimum Revenue Guarantee. That’s money to cover any shortfall in expected revenue suffered by the airline during the first two years of service.

To attract an airline, Willard Airport is seeking money from local governments and employers for a Minimum Revenue Guarantee, which would cover any shortfalls in an airline’s expected revenue during the first two years that the route operates. Bannon and McCrory-McKay say this has become an expected part of efforts to encourage an airline to offer service at small airports like Willard.

The University of Illinois, which operates Willard Airport, is putting up $500,000 towards a Minimum Revenue Guarantee for a leisure route.

The airport is seeking another $500,000 from other sources. So far in February, the Champaign and Urbana City Council have both given preliminary approval for contributions — $75,000 from Champaign and $50,000 from Urbana. The airport is also seeking contributions from Champaign County and Rantoul and will contact private entities such as local employers who may see leisure air service as a way to attract employees to the area.

Bannon says if any of the MRG money is needed to cover shortfalls, the university’s contribution will be used first.  

Meanwhile, Willard Airport is continuing with efforts to attract a carrier that will provide non-stop service to Washington D.C.  McCrory-McKay says they are also offering a Minimum Revenue Guarantee in that campaign. In the case of DC service, the MRG would be paid for by UIUC and an $850,000 grant awarded by the federal Department of Transportation in 2022.

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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