Letter from the Executive Director – Dec. 2022

Our airport is excited to welcome new, larger jets, starting this month.  American Airlines’ regional affiliate, Envoy, now operates both daily roundtrips to and from Dallas/Ft. Worth with 76-seat Embraer ERJ175 aircraft.  The planes are much larger than the 50-seaters previously used on the route, and they feature 12 first class seats – the first time American has offered a first class product in Champaign-Urbana.  The plane also has larger overhead bins, which means you won’t have to gate-check your roll aboard.

The shift to larger planes adds about 25% more daily departing seats, which could help to lower fares, and will ensure you have more travel options.  American is also flying a third daily departure to Chicago O’Hare for the holiday season, to keep up with resilient demand in our market.

Our travelers are filling more seats at Willard Airport than at any time in history.  This summer, 91% of all seats went out full – among the highest share of any airport in the Midwest.  We know Willard can support more airline capacity.

To that end, we have spent the fall meeting, in person, with a number of airlines to ensure they understand the market dynamics.  We meet not only with “network carriers” like American, but also many low-cost airlines that could connect east central Illinois to vacation destinations such as Florida and Las Vegas.

The current challenge for all carriers is a lack of pilots.  More than 4,000 pilots retired during the pandemic, and there simply aren’t enough fully qualified pilots available to fill those positions.

Parkland College, a tenant at Willard, is working to train the next generation of pilots – with 100 future aviators currently enrolled.  But it will be several years before those students are ready to fly passengers.

Until then, we will continue to make the case that our market is the best place for airlines to allocate aircraft and pilot time.  And, as you’ll read in this newsletter, the federal Department of Transportation also believes in Champaign-Urbana with an $850,000 grant award to help us recruit service to Washington, DC.

In the meantime, we appreciate when you Fly Champaign-Urbana first.

Tim Bannon, A.A.E.
Executive Director
University of Illinois – Willard Airport

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After several years of work, the Department of Transportation (DOT) awarded Willard Airport an $850,000 grant to help secure nonstop flights to a Washington, DC area airport.  The Grant is matched by more than $1.2 million in local funds contributed by almost two-dozen Champaign-Urbana organizations and companies.

Willard competes against many other airports for funding from the DOT’s Small Community Air Service Development Grant Program (SCASDP).  It had $16.9 million available for all airports.  48 airports applied for funding, and just 25, including Willard, won.  Airports requested more than $33 million in funding, but the DOT could only award about half that amount.

To win funding, Willard Airport had to illustrate a strong business case that the service can be successful, community support and matching funding, and that airline service at Willard has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.  Willard’s capacity is down by a third since the pandemic began.

“We couldn’t be happier to be selected for this grant, which will directly support a Minimum Revenue Guarantee (MRG) and associated marketing program to recruit, initiate, and support potential service to the Washington, DC region,” said Tim Bannon, Willard Airport Executive Director. “This grant will put our community in a strong position to continue efforts in landing a highly coveted route to the nation’s capital.”

The Airport has already been in talks with prospective carriers to discuss the Grant, and its potential to mitigate risk in starting the new route.  Current pilot shortages means that service is unlikely to begin in 2023, but service could start in 2024.

Willard was the only airport in Illinois to receive funding.

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Willard Airport leadership frequently meets with American Airlines, our incumbent carrier, working to secure more capacity and to better serve the region.  The Airport built a business case for American to replace 50-seat regional jets on the Dallas/Ft. Worth route, with larger and more comfortable 76-seat Embraer ERJ175 planes.  American agreed that the market can support the additional seats, and most DFW flights shifted to the larger planes on November 30.

The new planes are much larger, with 2-by-2 seating in economy and 1-by-2 seating in American’s first class.  Each plane is configured with 12 first class seats and 64 seats in economy.  The planes have much larger overhead bins, allowing you to stow your roll aboard in the bin above your seat, instead of having to gate check your bag and wait for it when you arrive.

The additional seats represent a 25% increase in capacity for Willard this winter, providing much needed seats in a market that fills more than 90% of departing seats.  Increased capacity should lead to lower fares.

While some flights to and from DFW will still operate with 50-seat jets, virtually all flights should feature the larger plane by spring.

If the Champaign-Urbana community fills DFW flights on larger aircraft, American will consider replacing 50-seat seats on the Chicago O’Hare route in 2023.

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Willard Airport worked with engineering firm Crawford, Murphy, and Tilly  to complete its first master plan in more than 30 years.  The plan lays out projects that should be completed to ensure the Airport is ready to serve the community for the next several decades.

The master plan found the existing Passenger Terminal Building, which was built in 1988, is considered to be a “pre-9/11” facility. Its existing layout, size, and features did not consider enhanced security requirements and space standards that changed drastically in 2001-2002.

A  terminal  upgrade  program  was  developed  to  expand  and modernize the existing facility to meet future travel demand while providing amenities and enhancements to improve the overall passenger experience.

The upgrade program includes the relocation and expansion of the TSA security screening checkpoint and a larger passenger queue line, which will be complete in 2024.  The program also includes an expansion of TSA baggage screening areas, an eventual additional baggage claim carousel,  and renovated restrooms.

In addition to terminal upgrades, the master plan will bring Willard Airport up to FAA taxiway design standards, enhancing airfield safety by making geometric improvements that require more deliberate taxi movements and improve pilot situational awareness.

The master plan calls for a new aircraft rescue and firefighting facility.  The current facility is nearing the end of its useful life.  The master plan also found that the site is not ideal for long term operations and building size – and an alternate site should be explored to ensure the best response possible.

Finally, the master plan calls on the Airport to work with local communities to ensure compatible uses of land both on the Airport’s property and on adjacent property.

You can read the entire master plan report at: Full Airport Master Plan – CMI

 

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The Airport took delivery of its first new fire truck in more than 19 years, for aircraft rescue and firefighting operations, in October.  The Oshkosh Striker is at the top of its class – and 100% paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

As Car and Driver writes, “Think of the Striker as the Porsche 959 of firetrucks. The Striker offers a 30-degree angle of approach and departure, and it can climb a 50-percent grade. It’s designed to flatten the standard chain-link fences that surround U.S. airports. It’s 10 feet wide-with a monster track that helps keep it upright even when it’s leaning 30 degrees to port or starboard.”

“By firetruck standards, it’s also quick. The FAA requires that ARFF trucks accelerate to 50 mph in 35.0 seconds and that, from the moment the alarm sounds, the truck is capable of reaching the midpoint of the most distant runway in no more than three minutes.”

Willard Airport will now have two Strikers within its inventory, one primary vehicle and one reserve vehicle, ready 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.  The Striker is built by the Oshkosh Corporation in Appleton, Wisconsin. Willard Airport maintains a fully staffed, specially trained Fire Department, which operates 24/7/365.

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Andrew Smith, C.M., A.C.E, joined Willard Airport in August 2022 as the Assistant Director of Operations and Maintenance. Originally from New York, Andrew has more than ten years of airport experience.  He’s previously worked in parking and terminal services, FBO line service, and Airport Operations.

Andrew’s most recent position held was as an Airport Operation’s Supervisor where he acted as shift lead and performed various duties such as wildlife hazard management, fueling inspections, construction project coordination, and much more to ensure Part 139 compliance.

In 2021 he completed his Bachelor of Science in Informatics with a concentration in Data Analytics through SUNY Albany. In 2022 he earned his C.M designation through AAAE and is an FAA certified Part 107 drone pilot.

“I’m extremely excited to be serving as the next Assistant Director of Operations and Maintenance at Willard Airport,” said Andrew Smith. “After meeting with much of the team at Willard during the interview process, it was apparent that they had put a great group of knowledgeable and friendly people together and I am honored to now be a part of it. Implementing Willard Airport’s vision and continuing to support the University of Illinois and the Champaign-Urbana community is my top priority.”

He is currently enrolled in the Accredited Airport Executive program with AAAE and will be continuing his education at the University of Illinois.

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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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