Outlook for Downstate Illinois Airports – 2017 (Updated!)

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I decided to create a new post to answer an inquiry from a reader.

David, what are your early predictions for end of year airport totals for all central Illinois airports, including MLI?

I’ll offer my thoughts broken down by facility.

BLOOMINGTON/NORMAL (Central Illinois Regional Airport – BMI/CIRA)
CIRA lost its low-fare advantage when AirTran Airways dropped service in June 2012. Declining passenger traffic (down 34.5% since 2011) eased a bit the first half of 2016 since May and June numbers were higher than last year. But the loss of Detroit flights at the end of July decreases options for travelers. This year’s passenger numbers will likely be below 400,000.

The year 2017 offers some hope. Passenger traffic could actually increase slightly. American Eagle starts using 76-seat CRJ900s on its two daily DFW nonstops March 9. The third roundtrip begin in March apparently ended this summer, and won’t return thanks to the use of larger jets. This move might not necessarily increase traffic at CIRA, but spares it the loss of passengers since the same upgrade is coming to Peoria three weeks earlier. CIRA lost out to Peoria on Charlotte service, so I wouldn’t expect such service to be offered here in the forseeable future.

Allegiant Air will likely maintain nonstops to two Florida points: Orlando-Sanford and St. Petersburg/Clearwater. This carrier has suffered bad publicity for aircraft maintenance issues, but a recent order for new A-320NEOs and acquisition of second-hand A-319s and A-320s will allow retirement of the older MD-80s that suffer all-too frequent incidents. I don’t see any new destinations on the horizon,though twice-weekly Punta Gorda flights wouldn’t surprise me. Service to Las Vegas and Phoenix-Mesa would cannabilize the Peoria market rather than increase traffic for the airline.

Delta Air Lines has temporarily suspended 717-200 service to CIRA from Atlanta (probably to add capacity in other markets for the holiday travel season), but resumes January 7. This service initially started January 5, 2016. That Delta seems to be keeping this aircraft in the CIRA market (with temporary exceptions) is a good sign. In addition to Atlanta flights, Delta offers at least a daily nonstop to Minneapolis/St. Paul. A second roundtrip started June 1, but was apparently for the summer season.

On a final Delta note, Rivian Automotive’s intent to purchase the former Mitsubishi auto assembly plant at Normal, Illinois could prompt restoration of Detroit service. Rivian has offices in Detroit, and as operations are ramped up, perhaps as a result Delta will see a need to restore a link with that hub.

CHAMPAIGN/URBANA (University of Illinois-Willard Airport, CMI)
A new marketing campaign begin in 2015 to increase service and lure another carrier or two has yet to yield fruit. Unless carriers decide that the Central Illinois region is best served by a PIA-CMI axis and not a PIA-BMI one, I can’t see much happening here. Retirement of Embraer 145s, some of which received maintenance here, will likely bring changes. But I don’t expect these in 2017.

DECATUR (Decatur Airport, DEC)
Air Choice One should continue to offer Essential Air Service to Chicago-O’Hare and St. Louis during 2017. I believe the contract was renewed early this year, but for how long I don’t know. One wonders why passengers can’t just use BMI, CMI, SPI or even PIA for their travel accommodations.

MOLINE/QUAD CITIES (Quad City International Airport, MLI)
This facility, like CIRA, has taken a big hit since losing AirTran Airways service. Peak traffic came in 2007 when 966,142 passengers flew through MLI. In 2015, only 730,292 passengers used MLI, a decline of 24.4%, though over a greater period than CIRA. Fortunately, the decline has eased, and is only down 7.9% since 2011.

I’d not be surprised to see MLI see an increase in traffic during 2017. American Eagle begins twice-daily CR900 DFW service on January 9-10. MLI, like CIRA, lost its first chance for expanded service when American Eagle picked PIA and Cedar Rapids, Iowa (CID) for new Charlotte nonstops. Depending on how well these markets perform, I’d expect MLI to be added in time, but not likely next year.

As for the others, Allegiant Air offers nonstops to Las Vegas, Orlando-Sanford, Phoenix-Mesa, Punta Gorda and St. Petersburg/Clearwater. The carrier has recently been adding larger cities to its network, but I don’t expect this to be done at the expense of facilities like MLI. Someday, nonstop international points will be added from MLI, but perhaps not in 2017.

Delta Connection maintains nonstops to three hubs – Atlanta, Detroit and Minneapolis/St. Paul, and I don’t expect that to change. At least the Atlanta market gets larger regional jets. United Express offers service to its Chicago (O’Hare) and Denver hubs. Service to the latter is down to just one daily roundtrip

PEORIA (Gen. Wayne A Downing Peoria International Airport, PIA)
Allegiant Air’s plans to offer flights to the Caribbean and Mexico is believed the reason for construction of new Federal Inspection Service (FIS) facilities at a number of smaller commercial airports around the Midwest. Peoria’s facility opened in late-May. I don’t expect international service to begin in 2017, but it wouldn’t surprise me if preparations to start service, predicated on funding for five full-time FIS employees, were under way by year’s end.

International status keeps PIA’s stature above its other central Illinois contempories. But better air service and competitive fares have driven passenger traffic to record levels four years in a row.

Earlier this year, Allegiant Air apparently asked PIA to poll travelers’ preferences for three destinations: Los Angeles, Destin (Florida) and Myrtle Beach. Cedar Rapids and Des Moines have Los Angeles service, but distance and gate availability are likely reasons Peoria and Moline aren’t served from southern California.

I’ve not heard about load factors on American Eagle’s new Charlotte flights, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t doing well. Assuming that’s the case, then AA is giving Delta Air Lines/Delta Connection a run for its money as it pertains to competitive connections via Atlanta and Charlotte. Traffic through PIA is likely to be stimulated as a result, and probably means PIA will at least crack 600,000 passengers in 2016, and sets the stage for good numbers (if not a record) in 2017.

Now that American Eagle is beginning two-class service to DFW on February 16, I expect Delta Connection, if it senses the need, to phase in larger regional jets in the Peoria market, perhaps before the end of 2017.

It is hoped the airport authority can persuade United Express to restore Peoria-Denver nonstops. That regional partners to American Airlines and Delta Air Lines offer service to three hubs, but United only one, is a clear competitive disadvantage.

SPRINGFIELD (Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, SPI)
Allegiant Air flights to Orlando-Sanford and Punta Gorda, and American Eagle’s DFW nonstops, have given SPI traffic gains the past few years. Officials have been lobbying for a third DFW roundtrip and service to Las Vegas.

Will SPI get more service in 2017? Hard to say, since Allegiant Air seems more interested in larger markets. American Eagle is more likely to switch to CRJ900s on its DFW flights than add a third frequency.

Passenger traffic and air service levels in the coming year are predicated on fuel prices. If these rise significantly, expect cutbacks in frequency, and perhaps routes. That and increasing low-fare competition at Minneapolis/St. Paul may cause Delta [Connection] to reduce service to downstate Illinois markets, particularly CIRA (MLI and PIA have a better chance of retention).

  • In summary, BMI’s passenger traffic may have stabilized. Higher traffic is possible in 2017.
  • CMI wants new service but probably won’t get it in 2017.
  • DEC will not see any changes in Air Choice One’s EAS service to ORD and STL
  • MLI’s passenger traffic has stabilized, and higher traffic is likely in 2017.
  • PIA won’t post a record in 2016, but traffic should be higher in 2017 thanks to Atlanta vs. Charlotte competition. Larger jets to DFW will help as well.
  • SPI should remain stable, but new service in 2017 may be elusive.

UPDATE (Dec. 29, 2016): The Wall Street Journal posted this article November 18 about renewed interest by United Air Lines in small cities. CFO Andrew Levy was quoted as saying, “The only places with reasonable fares are smaller cities…That’s where the money is.” The airline may add up to 20 small cities to its network, possibly those routes out of Chicago-O’Hare that the airline does not compete with rival American Airlines (actually regional partner American Eagle).

So the obvious question: Are CIRA and CMI possible additions to the United Express network in 2017? United Express served CIRA from 2000 to 2008. The carrier served CMI nearly a quarter century ago. Given its more recent history in CiRA, I’d give that city the upper hand, but CMI’s distance from existing points served by the airline might be in its favor.

– David P. Jordan

PIA To Offer TSA Pre-Check

I didn’t see this until last evening, but Saturday’s Peoria Journal Star dead tree edition contained an article entitled, Peoria airport will offer precheck. WEEK TV-25’s website had an article on Friday.

According to the Transportation Security Administration’s FAQ’s, eleven airlines participate in the program. So if you’re flying out of Peoria on regional partners of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, you can use Pre-Check.

See here for a list of airports and airlines in Illinois that are participating in the program. Not surprisingly, Chicago-O’Hare International Airport and Chicago Midway International Airport are in the program. So are the Quad City International Airport and Champaign’s University of Illinois-Willard Airport. No word if Bloomington-Normal’s Central Illinois Regional Airport is planning to offer it.

– David P. Jordan

CMI Marketing Campaign Reveals Possible Future Air Service for Central Illinois

Today’s News-Gazette updates us on plans for a marketing campaign designed to increase air service at Champaign’s Willard Airport. The University of Illinois owns and manages the airport. Plans are to contract that function to another entity.

What stood out was this run-down of possible new destinations and what it tells us about prospects for air service expansion in other central Illinois cities.

— In the hunt for new air service destinations, Charlotte, N.C., might be the most likely East Coast candidate. American Airlines has hinted it may consider one airport in central Illinois for service to Charlotte, which has been a hub for American acquisition US Airways. New York and Washington are considered “unlikely” destinations for Willard, but Miami is a possibility.

— The UI has talked with another major carrier, United Airlines, about possible service. United has indicated service to Washington — Willard’s most desired destination — is unlikely, but Newark, N.J., is a possibility.

— The other major air carriers, Southwest and Delta, are unlikely to extend service to Champaign-Urbana. Southwest has largely pulled out of regional airports, and Delta isn’t going into regional airports it doesn’t already serve. The UI is talking with smaller airlines, such as Allegiant, about other possibilities, including less-than-daily service to Florida.

This one is interesting. American Airlines has hinted it may consider one airport in central Illinois for service to Charlotte. My guess is that Bloomington-Normal or Peoria would be beneficiaries, and most likely the latter given Caterpillar’s major presence in the Charlotte region, including nine facilities and about 2,000 employees in North Carolina alone. Some of these plants are new or have been expanded in the last few years, and generate steady business travel. Not enough to support Charlotte service on its own, but certainly enough to help make it profitable. Champaign has no chance of getting American Eagle flights to Charlotte. Same for Miami.

If United Express service to Washington (Dulles?) is unlikely from Champaign, then I see little chance for Bloomington or Peoria either. Makes me wonder if the Quad Cities really has a chance either, given the new governor’s policy if freezing state subsidies (approved last year) pending review. Probably not. And if United Express has indicated that Newark is possible, then Bloomington or Peoria are more likely than Champaign.

Given some recent discussion of its rising passenger numbers and a second jetway, this has to be disappointing for Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport. Delta isn’t going into regional airports it doesn’t already serve.

It’s great that Champaign is trying to expand its air service offerings, but there are reasons they’re now limited to American Eagle flights to Chicago-O’Hare and Dallas/Ft. Worth. FlightStar Corporation. If that firm’s maintenance hangars aren’t expanded to accommodate larger jets, the city could lose that too.

There are reasons Bloomington and Peoria have dominated Central Illinois air service for years now – location and size, respectively. Loss of AirTran Airways at the former has eliminated a distortion. Peoria has benefited wildly, so has Springfield. Bloomington will hang on a bit, but the jury is still out on Champaign.

– David P. Jordan

“Officials have not publicly identified the airline involved”

Take a deep breath, this doesn’t involve Peoria.

Not directly anyway. The headline is actually the last sentence in this Quad City Times article, which concerns a drop in daily passengers flying to the nation’s capital. Quad City International Airport director Bruce Carter is worried that the daily average has dropped from 41 passengers a year ago to 15 or 18.

As some of you know, Quad City leaders have for some time lobbied for nonstop air service to Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport, mainly due to defense industry travel related to the Rock Island Arsenal. The effort received a boost last year when Illinois’ legislature approved a $1.5 million subsidy.

Those funds have been frozen pending review by Illinois’ new governor, Bruce Rauner. So the article’s last paragraph caught my attention.

Both Carter and Rumler said the agreement with the airline is in its final stages. Officials have not publicly identified the airline involved.

Except it is pretty obvious which airline is involved. Neither Director Bruce Carter nor Chamber of Commerce’s Paul Rumler need to tell us. Molly Folley, airport authority chairwoman gives it away.

“Because it is a gateway, it (the flight) is not just for people flying to D.C.,” she said, adding that the flight also will open up travel to international destinations. “That helps increase the chances of making the service a success.”

This is just another way of saying the carrier involved maintains a hub-and-spoke network at Dulles. United Airlines is the only choice here, folks. So a daily roundtrip operated by ExpressJet Airlines dba United Express using a 50-seat Embraer 145 is likely, and possibly without a subsidy.

Washington DC service overflies United’s Chicago-O’Hare hub, so passengers will pay a premium. Not sure if the higher price will be deemed superior to the risk of a delayed connection. Perhaps United [Express] should consider offering two daily roundtrips – one nonstop and the other nonstop – tied with Peoria? Airlines shed such routings by the late 1990s or early 2000s, but reduced costs compared to that period coupled with today’s lower fuel prices might offset such inefficiency.

The higher frequency and potential for more passengers with a Peoria tie-in might even require larger aircraft, perhaps a 72-seat Embraer 170 operated by ExpressJet parent SkyWest Airlines? Even with higher fares, larger jets and nonstop service would no doubt draw passengers from competitors who routing passengers via Chicago-O’Hare (American Airlines) or Detroit (Delta Air Lines).

We know that like the Quad Cities, Peoria has been lobbying for Washington, DC service. Perhaps working together can bring success?

– David P. Jordan