Director’s Corner: Tim Bannon, AAE – Executive Director

It’s been a challenging, and exciting, time at the University of Illinois – Willard Airport. We have faced the most significant weather events in the Airport’s history with last summer’s derecho – we have completed repairs, some of which have resulted in noticeable upgrades to the passenger experience.

University of Illinois – Willard AirportWe’re thrilled to welcome Ion Grove Café to the Airport terminal, which will open this spring in our gate area. The location not only offers healthy and local meal choices to our travelers, but also brings exciting innovation in the form of one of the first robot coffee baristas at an airport.

We welcomed the members of our new, Chancellor-appointed Airport Advisory Board to their roles, advising our administration team and better connecting us with our community stakeholders. The board is already working hard on a new initiative – to raise incentive funding for nonstop service to places such as Florida, Las Vegas, or Phoenix.

I couldn’t be more proud of our airport team. We were named the 2023 Primary Airport of the Year by the Illinois Department of Transportation. It’s the first time Willard Airport has won the award. We beat out, not only, other airports in central Illinois, but also airports such as O’Hare and Midway, for the honor. IDOT noted Willard’s passenger satisfaction and safety as key factors in the selection.

This award is the best evidence yet that we’ve rededicated ourselves to making flying easier for you. As always, we hope you’ll Fly Champaign-Urbana first.

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Everyday Willard Airport and its community partners work to better connect central Illinois to the world.  The effort helped to convince American Airlines to upgrade all CMI service to larger jets – each flight now features first class, main cabin extra, and economy.  Service performs well with nonstops to both Chicago O’Hare and Dallas/Ft. Worth, connecting to more than 220 destinations in a single stop, every day of the week.

But Willard’s internal data shows many of those who live in Champaign County drive to other airports for nonstops flights when they travel to places like Orlando, Tampa, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.  Willard has recently met with low-cost carriers who could provide nonstops.  But there are hundreds of airports just like Willard seeking the same service – many with much more lucrative incentives.

“We designed our air service incentive program to be best-in-class,” said Willard Executive Director Tim Bannon. “But, under federal law, there’s only so much an airport, itself, is allowed to do.”

Willard’s incentive program includes marketing support, fee waivers, and funding to defer start-up costs.  That’s all the FAA allows by regulation.  But other communities are developing much richer incentives through other sources of funds.

Successful communities often offer an airline minimum revenue guarantee (MRG).  An MRG is a contractual agreement with an airline that guarantees the airline a minimum amount of revenue from a particular route. In essence, the MRG serves as a financial safety net for the airline, ensuring that it does not incur losses on a particular route during startup.

The purpose of an MRG is to encourage airlines to operate routes that may represent risk to the airline in the short term but have the potential to generate long-term benefits for the airport and local economy. By offering an MRG, airports/governments can incentivize airlines to introduce new routes in their targeted markets and jump over other markets that are not offering risk sharing incentives for new service.

The University of Illinois has pledged $500,000 in MRG funding for a vacation route.  The Airport, working alongside the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation and Experience Champaign-Urbana, is seeking a match of $500,000 from the community to make the service possible.

“We know from the successful air service development campaigns in other communities that we will have to offer an MRG to secure service to a vacation destination,” said Bannon.  “We hope many in the community will join the effort to show prospective airlines that Champaign-Urbana is ready to fly.”

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A line of severe storms with damaging wind gusts and embedded tornadoes, known as a derecho, tore through central Illinois last June. The winds caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage throughout the region – and Willard Airport didn’t escape unscathed.

The biggest damage was the roof, part of which was ripped off in the high winds. The airport also experienced flooding due to the roof damage.

Even though the airport sustained heavy damage from the storm, operational impacts were minimal, the terminal opened the next day for flights, less than 24 hours after the event. “Our team, with support from the university, performed immediate assessments, and mobilized emergency response crews within hours” said Willard Executive Director Tim Bannon. “While permanent repairs were pending, temporary measures were activated, restoring operations to the terminal quickly, a success story given the circumstances.”

The damaged sections of the roof have now been replaced, and the interior of the terminal is fully rebuilt. The Airport took the opportunity to upgrade the passenger boarding terminal lighting – it’s now all LED. And new ceiling panels have brightened the gate area, creating a more modern feel for travelers.

In all, the damage totaled nearly $1 million, and took over six months for restoration to be completed.

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The new Willard Airport Advisory Board was created at the end of 2023 to advise the Executive Director on matters of airport administration. The new Board helps to provide community input on the identification of future capital needs, examining the means and methods of financing such future capital needs, the promotion and examination of the financing means and methods for the economic development of the area on and around the airport, the joining together of economic development and airport operations, and the identification and implementation of ways of working with the local community to accomplish the Airport’s goals.

Nine Board Members have been appointed by the Chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. Board members include:

– Chair, Carly McCrory-McKay, Executive Director of Champaign County Economic Development Corporation
– Vice Chair, Jayne DeLuce, President & CEO, Experience Champaign-Urbana
– Karl Gnadt, Managing Director, Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (CU MTD)
– Bruce Knight, Planning & Development Director, City of Champaign
– Diane Wolfe-Marlin, Mayor, City of Urbana
– Sharee Robinson, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
– Steve Summers, County Executive, Champaign County
– John Walsh, External Affairs Program Executive, Carle Health System
– Christopher Walton, Village Administrator, Village of Savoy

The Board is designed to have wide-ranging experience and interests in the greater Champaign County community, to give local residents a greater voice in the administration of the Airport. The board will meet a minimum of 6 times per year.

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Passengers might want to arrive a little early at Willard Airport, as Ion Grove Café will start serving healthy meals, snacks, and drinks in the gate area at Willard Airport by early spring. The Café will feature locally sourced foods, as Phil Rowell, co-founder of Ion Grove, says, “go beyond the typical grab-and-go meals.”

The highlight might be the barista. Rowell says the Café, “will feature a coffee robot.” The Café will also sell, “local retail products and a menu that puts a spotlight on locally sourced foods, all conveniently located planeside.”

The menu includes vegan and vegetarian options and was developed with food allergies in mind. Drinks will feature Coke products, coconut water, coffee and tea.

Merchandise will be offered from local suppliers.

“Our goal is to make the airport experience not just bearable but enjoyable,” said Rowell. “We want to provide quality food and services that have a positive impact on our travelers. The idea was inspired by our love for our community, our passion for good food and the desire for travelers to have a uniquely welcoming place to relax and recharge.”

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The Illinois Department of Transportation has named Willard Airport the 2023 Primary Airport of the Year for the State of Illinois. The Award is given to the top commercial service airport in the State with more than 10,000 passenger boardings each year. Willard beat out all other airports across the State, including Midway and O’Hare Airports in Chicago. This is the first time Willard Airport has been named Primary Airport of the Year.

“We are honored to be selected as the Primary Airport of the Year,” Willard Executive Director Tim Bannon told WCIA 3 News in Champaign. “We wish to thank our dedicated staff, tenants, American Airlines, and the community for supporting our airport and helping us to stay focused on our mission of providing connectivity to the world.”

Transportation officials said Willard’s strong commitment to passenger safety and satisfaction made them stand out. Also considered were cooperation and coordination with the state, safety record, maintenance of the facility and promotion of aviation and educational events.

“Illinois serves as the nexus of North America’s transportation network, with aviation playing a key role in moving passengers and freight around the state, country and world,” Illinois Transportation Secretary Omer Osman said in a state press release. “Our aviation partners, from massive international airports to smaller regional facilities to a single grass landing strip, are vital to our state’s economy and mobility. These awards represent our thanks for the services they provide.”

Bannon also told WCIA 3 News, “We’re all doing really great work to grow the airport and to do our part industry-wise. So, that’s what really makes me happy to be here and be a part of a great core group of individuals that are trying to make this place better.”

Flight Tips

Traveling with friends and family?  We have some suggestions to make your flight just a little bit easier!

  1. Plan to arrive early because the lines may be longer as we head into the summer vacation season.  Check the airport and airline website for suggested arrival times.Children in holiday sweaters pulling suitcases at an airport.
  2. When parking at the airport, take a picture of your parking ticket, parking space, lot number or anything that will help you remember where you have parked.
  3. Weigh your bags-downsize to avoid overweight charges. Check the airline’s website for information on checked bags and carry-on requirements. Remember to never leave your bag unattended at the airport for any reason.
  4. Pack an empty water bottle in your carry-on item to fill after you get through the security checkpoint and light snacks to enjoy while waiting for your flight or to eat on the plane.
  5. Consider signing up for TSA PreCheck-enjoy a smoother security screening process with
    no need to remove shoes, laptops, 3-1-1 liquids, belts or light jackets.
  6. Place important items in an accessible place such as ID card, credit card, and boarding pass. Have your ID and boarding pass ready when you get in line for the security checkpoint.
  7. Know what can and can’t fly-check TSA’s prohibited items list and don’t wrap presents.
  8. Ask yourself what you need to get through security-if you don’t have TSA PreCheck, remove shoes, jewelry, watch, jacket, liquids, large electronics, etc.
  9. Double check that you have everything after clearing security.
  10. Enjoy your flight.

 

Willard Airport staff takes pride in working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, creating an ideal environment for pilots, travelers, and airport employees.  That work was validated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in April.

Each year, the FAA inspects every commercial service airport in the country.  Willard Airport passed without a single discrepancy, for the second year in a row.  After a comprehensive review of records, training programs, inspection programs, and an on-site visit, the FAA didn’t find a single item out of compliance – something that is exceptionally rare in one visit, much less for two straight years.

“This achievement illustrates the dedication that our team has to running Willard Airport safely,” said Tim Bannon, Executive Director.

“It was a great achievement to score a perfect inspection in 2022, and it feels even more rewarding to pass with no discrepancies for a second year in a row in 2023. I would like to recognize our operations and maintenance teams for their ongoing commitment to the safety of Willard Airport.”

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Construction is complete on the $2.3 million rental car service facility at Willard Airport.  The “quick turnaround” facility is designed to expedite cleaning and maintenance processes, allowing for a faster turnaround time for the vehicles.

After a customer returns a rental car, the company brings it to the quick turnaround facility.

Rental car staff inspect the returned vehicle for any damage. They note any issues or necessary repairs that need to be addressed before the car can be rented out again.

The vehicle goes through a thorough cleaning process. This includes vacuuming the interior, washing the exterior, and detailing to ensure it’s presentable for the next customer. The new Willard Airport quick turnaround facility will have modern wash systems to efficiently handle multiple vehicles simultaneously.  Once the vehicle has been inspected and cleaned, and any necessary maintenance completed, it is ready for the next customer.

The facility will save the rental car companies time as the new facility is located adjacent to the main terminal. It also reduces carbon emissions as fewer cars will have to leave the airport property for servicing.

The facility was funded through rental car concessions fees and the completion of the project was March 12, 2024.

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Willard Airport will serve about 525 passengers per day, each day, this summer.  Expect a busier terminal than you’ve seen for the last few years.  And make sure to arrive early, because American will no longer accept any checked bags delivered 45 minutes, or less, before departure.
If you aren’t checking a bag, make sure you arrive early to go through security.  With larger planes now operating at Willard, there will be more passengers on each departure.

It also helps if you can pack light. You can avoid checked baggage fees and waiting at baggage claim by only bringing a carry-on bag. Make sure to check American’s size and weight restrictions for carry-on luggage.

Keep an eye on your flight status and any potential delays or cancellations by signing up for flight alerts through American’s app or website. Stay connected to the airline’s social media channels for any real-time updates.

And you might consider travel insurance.  If you’re planning a big trip or have concerns about potential disruptions, consider purchasing travel insurance to protect yourself against unexpected events like flight cancellations or lost luggage.

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