United Express Picks Champaign/Urbana! (Updated)

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Champaign/Urbana is getting a new airline.

In a move sure to heat up competition and bring lower fares, ExpressJet Airlines dba United Express begins thrice-daily service out of Willard Airport starting June 8. The new service will be flown with 50-seat Embraer 145 twin jets.

This gives Champaign a second legacy carrier for the first time since 2010 when Delta Connection dropped its Detroit flights. Since that time, American Eagle has been Willard’s sole scheduled air carrier, offering nonstops to Chicago-O’Hare and Dallas/Ft. Worth.

Last November, the Wall Street Journal ran an article noting a new strategy for United Airlines in that it would add some 20 small cities to boost revenue and market share.

CIRA OR WILLARD?
United Express served Willard Airport before. Its legacy dates to 1983 when Mississippi Valley Airlines (MVA) added Willard. Air Wisconsin acquired MVA in 1985. That carrier adopted the United Express branding systemwide in late October 1986 and continued to service here until February 1993.

United Express more recently served Bloomington/Normal’s Central Illinois Regional Airport. Four daily flights on 32-seat Dornier 328 turboprops started in September 2000. Regional jets were phased in a few years later. Surging fuel prices and a declining economy prompted the carrier to ended service to CIRA in early November 2008.

Unknown is whether United Express looked at CIRA for new service. Favoring Willard is its distance from existing stations (Peoria and Springfield), an American Eagle monopoly (i. e. high fares) and a potentially larger catchment area*.

*Champaign’s metro area of 232,000 and nearby Danville’s 81,000. This number is considerably higher than Bloomington/Normal’s MSA of 191,000. 

Thanks to commenter “Mike” for the heads up!

UPDATE (Feb. 27): The News-Gazette posted a story this morning. The official announcement came today.

(NOTE: Above photo taken September 9, 2007)

– David P. Jordan