Smile Politely

Direct flights to Washington, D.C. might be coming to C-U

Direct flights from Willard Airport to the Washington, D.C. area could be coming soon, but it’s unclear just how soon that could be.

In recent weeks, airport officials have had conversations with “numerous airlines” about starting service to either Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) or Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), Tim Bannon, Willard Airport’s executive director told Smile Politely.

So far, though, no airline has decided to make it official, he said.

The conversations stem from $850,000 in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Part of the department’s Small Community Air Service Development program, the funding is designed to increase air service access in small communities, both in terms of routes and airfares.

The grant dollars were awarded in early August and signed on September 8th. The program is valid for up to five years, but service to Washington, D.C. is not guaranteed as a result of the money, Bannon said. 

“Air service recruitment is very competitive in today’s market, timelines are difficult to forecast,” Bannon said. “Updates will be provided as any new information becomes available, or if an airline announces the acceptance of the offer and schedules new service to the Washington, D.C. area.”

Though awarded to the airport, the funding would be used for a “revenue guarantee” to incentivize interested airlines to start service.

“The funding comes in the form of a minimum revenue guarantee, which would reimburse the airline on a quarterly basis for its financial shortfalls if the revenue for the new service isn’t high enough to sustain the route on its own,” Bannon said. “The grant functions as insurance for the airline to be guaranteed to not lose money for a period of time.”

The grant award is the federal agency’s attempt to address the Champaign area’s “substantial air service deficiency, as evidenced by the high level of traffic leakage it experiences to other airports,” according to the grant award order. The order also points out “high airfares,” as a challenge for the area as well. 

American Airlines is currently the only commercial airline that provides service from Willard Airport. The company told Smile Politely in a statement that they’re “constantly evaluating our global network, but don’t have anything to share on service between CMI-DCA.” 

The grant order specifically identified potential options for American Airlines to initiate service to DCA, or United Airlines to begin service to IAD, though Bannon said any airline can accept the incentive to start service to Washington, D.C., not just American or United. 

United told Smile Politely they didn’t “have anything new to announce at this time.”

Reagan National Airport is “one of the more difficult airports in the country to get service to” due to high demand, Bannon said. The airport is located just across the Potomac river from the nation’s capital and has direct public transit access to the center of Washington. Dulles Airport is located nearly 30 miles away from the city center. A much-delayed subway extension is slated to begin service on November 15th.   

Bannon confirmed, however, that conversations between airlines and Willard Airport officials are ongoing. The airport also has a consultant on retainer to assist with air service development.

“Airlines pay close attention to the SCASD grant announcements,” Bannon said. 

In fact, airport officials met with several airlines — including American Airlines — at the Takeoff North America conference in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. Though Bannon expressed caution about just how quickly those conversations would materialize into a new route.

“The grant was a topic of discussion,” Bannon said. “The industry is highly competitive across the country for pilots and aircraft. There is no requirement for an airline to accept an incentive or start new service at Willard Airport. Even with high load factors and demand returning, there may not be available pilots/aircraft to add to our market.”

Willard Airport is wholly owned by the University of Illinois, and has been in operation since 1946. Located in Savoy, the airport has four departing flights per day on American Airlines: two to Chicago O’Hare International Airport and two to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. 

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, American airlines operated eight daily flights to Charlotte, N.C., Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth. Service to Charlotte ended in October 2021. United Airlines stopped offering flights out of Willard Airport in 2018. 

But signs are pointing toward increased demand for air travel at the airport, Bannon said.

“Over the past three months, Willard has had over 90% load factors on all flights,” Bannon said. “[That is] a good indicator that demand is restoring for air travel in Champaign County.”

Later this month, American Airlines will begin flying larger planes on the route between CMI and DFW. The larger planes, the Embraer 175, have 76 seats — 26 more than the smaller planes the airline currently operates on both its Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth routes. The flights to Chicago “will remain” on the 50-seat Embraer 145, Bannon said.

In 2018, then-executive director Gene Cosseey told Smile Politely that increasing the number of commercial flights from the airport was important to the growth of the region. Cossey said at the time that service to New York or Denver would add additional options, as well as the presence of low-cost airlines like Allegiant or Frontier. 

Central Illinois Regional Airport, in Bloomington — a nearly 50-mile drive from Champaign — has service from Allegiant, American, Delta Airlines and Frontier Airlines. The airport features direct flights to Detroit, four destinations in Florida, Atlanta and Denver, as well as Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth. Long-term parking at the airport is free. Parking at Willard Airport is $7 per day.

Top image by Jake Williams. 

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