Today’s Pantagraph editorial shows panic in the Twin Cities.
That’s because they recognize Bloomington-Normal’s Central Illinois Regional Airport is no longer the “premier air facility for Central Illinois.” It lost that title to Peoria Int’l Airport in 2012, and the gap has been growing ever since.
After serving 579,265 passengers in 2011, CIRA’s numbers have declined nearly one-third. The reason – withdrawal on June 2, 2012 of AirTran Airways. New owner Southwest Airlines decided CIRA didn’t fit its network and the rest is history.
Initially, CIRA seemed poised to replace the loss of AirTran when it grabbed Frontier Airlines and Allegiant Air, both of which began service shortly before AirTran made its final flights. But Frontier Airlines is withdrawing from CIRA, for a second time in fact (first time was 1997-2001). Service to Denver ended in January. Service to Orlando, which resumed in December, will operate through most of April.
An attempt to lure nonstop service to an East Coast city – preferrably United Express to either Newark or Washington DC – has sputtered despite winning $500,000 in Small Community Air Service Development (SCASD) funds in 2012.
The problem for CIRA is less service and higher fares, thus it attracts far fewer passengers from surrounding cities, particularly Peoria. The Pantagraph offers a solution:
The easiest way to increase passenger numbers is for more businesses and travelers to push CIRA as their preferred arrival/departure site. That would catch the attention of more airlines, and entice existing airlines to add destinations.
It won’t work. Sure, Allegiant Air just added St. Petersburg/Clearwater flights last November 21 (service to Orlando-Sanford started May 16, 2012) and American Eagle added a second daily roundtrip to Dallas/Ft. Worth on October 1, 2013. But what else could CIRA attract?
Delta Connection recently cut Detroit service from two roundtrips to one. It is a good bet that CIRA officials have talked to United Express about service to an East Coast hub, but that airline no longer flies to CIRA. Springfield’s short-lived Washington, DC service didn’t work out due to reliability issues. Such service from the Quad Cities must be subsidized (an announcement is expected soon).
Storm clouds are gathering. Bloomington-Normal’s largest employer, State Farm Insurance, generates a relatively large volume of business travel, but recent changes within the company are likely contributing to declining use of CIRA. A commenter by the name of Luther Heggs writes,
duh, the decrease comes from a local employer dramatically decreasing the need for external associates that travel and new collaborative tools
(This likely refers to new regional centers in suburban Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix, and advanced communication tools that minimize the need for human contact.)
Declining fuel prices will work in CIRA’s favor, but also Peoria’s, Springfield’s and Champaign/Urbana’s. And United Express’ new Peoria-Houston flights, set to begin in early March, will likely draw not just a few passengers from Bloomington-Normal.
In time, the airline industry will change. Lower fuel prices, if perceived as a long term trend, might prompt new upstarts that will build traditional hub-and-spoke operations with spokes serving small cities like Bloomington-Normal. Until then, CIRA’s best hope is to stabilize its annual passenger numbers at about 400,000.
-David P. Jordan