Letter from the Executive Director – July 2022

It’s a busy summer at University of Illinois – Willard Airport.  Our terminal is beginning to look like it did before the pandemic, with almost 400 people a day flying in and out.

We’re working hard to modernize the terminal and improve the travel experience.  We just won a million dollar grant to completely re-build the TSA security checkpoint and queuing area.  The new checkpoint will eliminate the lines that sometimes back-up to our escalators, and speed-up the system to get you to your gate more quickly.

The project is well-timed.  While the airline industry is struggling with a pilot shortage, our service has stabilized.  We have American Airlines flights throughout the day to both Chicago O’Hare and Dallas/Ft. Worth, connecting east central Illinois to more than 200 cities around the world in a single stop.

Other communities haven’t fared as well.  American has grounded about 100 regional jets – like the ones that serve Champaign-Urbana – because the airline doesn’t have enough pilots to fly them.  Other major carriers, such as Delta and United, have parked even more planes.  Almost 60 airports in the US have lost service from at least one airline, and 11 airports have lost service altogether.

We work to protect our connectivity every day.  But we can only do so much to convince airlines we have demand for more flights.  The real key is you.  The more our local community uses our local airline service, the more evident it is to American – and other airlines – that Champaign-Urbana needs more options.  If we fill more than 85% of our airline seats, we’ll be in a much better position to win exceptionally coveted pilot hours.

Remember, when you fly, Fly Champaign-Urbana first.

Tim Bannon
Executive Director
University of Illinois – Willard Airport

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Willard Airport was proud to be awarded $1 million in federal funding for a new security checkpoint.  The money was the last piece of funding for the $2.6 million project, with most of the other funds coming from the federal infrastructure bill.

The current single-lane checkpoint, which is located on the bridge between the main terminal and the gate area, causes large backups – especially in the morning when multiple flights are departing.  The lines for the checkpoint often go down the stairs to the main terminal, clogging access to the gates.

The new checkpoint will use empty space to the right of the escalators as one ascends from the main terminal.  That space is, essentially, above the ticket counters.  It is perfectly located for a queuing area.  It will also allow for more screening equipment, as passengers rebound following the pandemic.  After the project’s completion, there will be two checkpoint lanes, processing passengers at twice the current rate.

The project also brings Willard Airport into compliance with current TSA regulations, without expanding the terminal, which would have cost millions more.

Design work for the project is already underway.  Construction should begin by the middle of 2023, with completion slated for 2024.

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While the commercial aviation industry faces a huge shortage of qualified pilots and aircraft maintenance engineers, the Parkland Institute of Aviation, at Willard Airport, is working on a solution.  Parkland reports enrollment for aviation programs for fall of 2023 is up 25% from last year, to more than 100 full-time students – the highest number of students since Parkland established the program.

Parkland began training students for aviation careers in 2014, with fewer than two dozen students in the first class.  The program has continually grown, as more high schoolers recognize the opportunity with aviation careers.  Parkland has a fleet of 20 aircraft for pilot training.  All aircraft came from the previous University of Illinois Institute of Aviation.

The median annual wage for a commercial airline pilot jumped to more than $180,000 in 2021, according to data from the Regional Airline Association (RAA).  Parkland has openings for fall of 2023 for students interested in a pilot career.  US airlines currently have more than 5,000 open pilot positions.

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Each year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspects every commercial service airport in the country.  Willard Airport works hard to keep everything on the field in perfect operating condition, so when the time for the year’s inspection comes, the airport is sure to pass.

This year was special: Willard Airport passed without a single discrepancy.  After a comprehensive review of records, training programs, inspection programs, and an on-site visit, this April the FAA couldn’t find a single item out of compliance – something that is exceptionally rare.

“I’m proud that we have been certified at the highest level of safety by our regulators,” said Tim Bannon, Executive Director.

“We are grateful to have such a dedicated and professional operations and maintenance team at our airport who implement and monitor our safety programs so the traveling public can fly with confidence.”

The perfect inspection isn’t the end of the work to keep Willard safe.  Airport staff work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, creating an ideal environment for pilots, travelers, and airport employees.

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Willard Airport launched an airport management intern position last fall.  After an extensive application process, Tingting He was selected for the position.  Tingting earned her bachelor of science degree in aviation management in 2021 from Auburn University.  She just graduated in May with her master’s degree from the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois.

Before coming to Willard Airport, Tingting worked as a flight dispatcher at Auburn University Airport.  She was also a flight coordinator for FedEx’s Air Operations division.

At Willard Airport, the internship introduced Tinging to the many facets of managing and operating a Commercial Service Airport. The Airport Management Intern position is assigned work and job shadowing by the Executive Director and is immersed in a variety of projects relating directly to airport administration, business operations, terminal operations, airfield operations, and security.

Tingting did an excellent job at Willard, helping to move projects forward, producing research and data to support business plans and ideas, and going above and beyond on assignments all over the airport.

Tingting has now accepted the position of Operations Specialist II at Birmingham Shuttlesworth International Airport, in Alabama.  She just began working in her new position last month.  She is sure to meet with success.

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Willard Airport has a new fire marshal, replacing John Riegel, after his 21 years in the job.  John Cumbee was promoted to the position in March, after ten years on the job as a crash rescue security specialist and a security coordinator at Willard.

John has worked as a firefighter and administrator for the last 20 years.  He started as a firefighter in 2002 and worked his way up to assistant chief, before coming to Willard Airport.  He currently serves as the Illinois state coordinator for the aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) working group.

John says the best part of the job is working with airport employees, tenants, and travelers to promote the airport, ensuring its safety and security.

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Letter from the Executive Director

Despite the pandemic, it has been a very busy couple of years at Willard Airport. We’ve just completed a set of major projects designed to make your experience better and to ensure not only your comfort, but your safety.

Our terminal has a whole new look.  We’ve replaced all the signage, installed new carpet, and added more passenger amenities like water bottle fillers and charging stations.  New wayfinding makes it easy to locate whatever you need – and our branding now matches our parent – the University of Illinois.  When visitors land at Willard, they’ll know they’ve landed at the home of the Illini.

We also re-built one of our three runways, ensuring safe landings and takeoffs for decades to come.  The $12 million project was almost entirely funded by the federal and State governments – no local tax money was needed.

Right now, we’re getting ready to build a brand new rental car wash facility.  Our car rental companies currently service vehicles in an outdoor enclosure, making it difficult to ensure arriving passengers are assigned clean cars, especially in the cold months of winter.  The rental car companies, through a locally imposed customer facility charge, are paying for the new facility, which should be fully constructed and operational in late 2022.

Passengers are slowly returning.  Airlines are reporting passenger loads within approximately 25% of our pre-pandemic high.  In 2022, our capacity will continue to slowly increase.  We anticipate about 90% of our available seats to be restored by the end of the year, with flight options throughout each day.

We’re not done working for you.  We have in-person meetings scheduled with airline planners throughout the spring.  We continue to work for better flight options and more nonstop cities.

All we ask, is that when you fly, Fly Champaign-Urbana first.

Tim Bannon, AAE

Executive Director

University of Illinois – Willard Airport

 

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If you haven’t visited Willard Airport in a while, you’ll be met with a whole new look the next time you fly.  The Airport has invested more than $110,000 to make the in-terminal experience better.

It all starts with the terminal’s look and feel.  Terminal wayfinding signs were fully replaced for the first time in several decades.  The new signs align with our Fly Champaign-Urbana brand and the University of Illinois colors. The new, modern signs simplify navigating throughout the terminal with easy-to-read messaging.

 

 

The signs cost $19,174.  The Airport was able to pay for them with airport operating funds – money that comes from things like airline rent payments.  The Airport was happy to partner with Dean’s Graphics in Champaign.  Dean’s designed the signs, produced the vinyl wrapping, and installed everything.

 

 

 

 

 

Willard contracted with Neverman Floor Artisans in Tolono for the $99,000 project, also paid through airport operating funds.  Neverman replaced the carpet throughout the terminal, including the gate areas, jetbridges, airline operational areas behind ticket counters, rental car offices, the second floor landing and administrative offices, and the airport conference room.

Willard Airport will continue to invest in the facility, striving to continue terminal upgrades, and ensuring the facility is set to operate efficiently for decades to come.

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When Willard Airport’s passengers collapsed as the pandemic took hold, the Airport quickly worked with federal agencies to replace lost revenue, and keep everyone working on the field employed.  Unlike other central Illinois airports, Willard gets no local tax revenue – so the pandemic created a challenge deeper for Willard than for most other airports.  With the Airport’s quick action, the community is well positioned for air service recovery, and even growth.

It’s no surprise that the pandemic has been challenging for all airports around the world.  Willard Airport is especially susceptible to pandemic impacts because such a high proportion of passengers are traveling for business.  Many of the Airport’s most frequent travelers have been grounded since the pandemic began.  That puts a huge dent in the Airport’s budget.

Unlike other airports in Central Illinois, including Bloomington, Peoria, and Springfield, Willard Airport is not supported by local tax money.  Those other airports get millions a year from property taxes.  Willard Airport doesn’t impose any tax on the local community.

That means Willard has to run like a business.  The Airport has to be fully supported by incoming revenue, from things like landing fees, airline rent, terminal concessions, rental car revenue, and, yes, parking fees.  When passengers dropped by more than 50%, so did the Airport’s revenue.

Thankfully, Willard received a total of $5.14 million in COVID relief funds.  Willard qualified for grants through various programs, including CARES, CRRSAA, and ARPA. The vast majority of the money is being spent directly on staff payroll.  Our passengers are still down about 40% from pre-pandemic levels, and so is our revenue.  Grant funding ensures we can keep our staff employed, and the Airport ready for traffic to rebound.

We’re also working to develop new sources of funding to better connect Champaign-Urbana to the world.  We’ll soon be applying for a Small Community Air Service Development Grant from the Department of Transportation.  The money can be used to offer airline incentives for expanded service, as we work to emerge from the pandemic.

Airports all over the country leverage these grants for expanded air service.  More than 200 new routes have been supported by the grants.  And the Airport hopes to add its name to the list of airports with better connectivity because of enhanced airline incentives.

Willard’s primary target for new air service is Washington, DC.  The market generated more than 50 passengers each day that traveled to DC before the pandemic.  But Willard is competing with many other airports for that coveted service.  A grant will help to set the community apart from others that are recruiting the same aircraft and pilot resources.

In addition to DC, the Airport continues to meet with airlines to talk about service in other high priority markets such as Florida, Las Vegas, and hubs to the west.

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The Willard Airport team isn’t done working to make the passenger experience better.  As traffic rebounds, more inbound visitors to Champaign-Urbana will be renting cars.  The Airport will be working with rental car companies to build a new vehicle service center, ensuring cars are cleaned, disinfected, inspected, and safe.

The $1.2 million project will include a new car wash, right next to the rental car lot.  Cars are currently cleaned away from the terminal, in an outdoor enclosure, which is far from ideal. Anytime the temperature outside is below freezing, car washing operations are suspended.  The new facility will improve turnaround time, and make rental car agent jobs a lot easier with clean cars 365 days a year.

The project will be entirely funding through rental car concessions fees, collected each time a customer rents a car.  Rental car companies are happy to fund the project because it will make their service at Willard much better.

While arriving passengers will notice a big improvement in the car rental experience, the Airport is also working to ensure arriving flights are as safe as possible. Willard will be reconfiguring the midfield taxiways intersection, bringing the geometry of the taxiways into FAA compliance.

Currently near the midfield of the airport, the taxiways have some confusing turns and intersections that can be difficult for a pilot to navigate. The re-aligned taxiways will make sure that all pilots, regardless of whether they have flown to Willard before, can easily get where they’re going on the airfield.

That project will cost approximately $4.0 million. The Airport is working with federal and state agencies on the funding plan right now – but its likely the Airport’s contribution will be less than $250,000. The project will be completed in 2023.

The Airport is continually identifying areas of the airfield, and facilities, that need to be improved.  On the long-term list are further terminal enhancements, including the relocation and expansion of the TSA screening checkpoint.

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