My first Willard Airport memory was in the two-decade-since-defunct gift shop at the top of the escalator. We were waiting for some family to fly in, and I was playing with a toy plane while my mom looked at magazines. I flicked the propeller on the toy too hard, and it flew off in multiple pieces, broken.
“You break it, you buy it,” she said, the first in a long line of hard truths that I’ve been facing ever since. I paid the penalty and sulked over to the waiting room, broken toy in hand, to sit in a teal and pink chair and wait for my Aunt to land.
When Senator Durbin came to town to announce a new runway last week, I started to face another hard truth: Willard airport’s place in our culture.
I’m sad to report that I’ve reached a sad conclusion on our airport, folks: it’s bad.
Over time I’ve come to appreciate, but not love, Willard Airport. Nothing quite compares to when you hit that runway in seat 1A of the airplane equivalent of a Dodge Neon and strut out of the jetway, brain freshly rattled: you’re home, against all odds (probably).
Deplaning at Willard is a quaint experience. C-U is a small town, so there’s a chance you will see someone you know waiting for the next journey. You can stop by the coffee stand or even glance at multiple tube TVs as you make your way to the baggage claim and onward to your car or ride. At Willard, you can go from landing to out the door in 10 minutes. Maybe less. It’s nothing short of incredible.
It’s also great for this:
Even so, our airport is bad.
It’s not like this is some sort of grand secret that our airport is bad. Most people who fly into Willard will tell you, perhaps upon landing, that our airport is bad. It’s true; they’re not just being mean. It is. Objectively. All you have to do to see an airport that isn’t bad is take a trip to Bloomington-Normal. The glassy concourses put our terminal to shame. It has a gift shop! It even has a bar, which should be required-by-law in airports.
Central Illinois Regional Airport (BMI), located in Bloomington-Normal, moved 209,156 total human passengers in 2019.
Between 2018 and 2019, BMI’s enplanements increased by 17% while Willard’s fell by 3%. You can read the data here.
I’m not a big math guy, but that’s twice as many (and growing) enplanements in Bloomington-Normal. This stat is made even more emphatic when you look at the population of each metro area: 169,572 (Bloomington-Normal) vs. 231,891 (Champaign-Urbana).
C-U has more people! Way more people! More than 26.8% more people! Why do we only have half as many air travelers as Bloomington-Normal? A disparity that large can’t all be attributed to travel from State Farm executives, two small universities, and a few other corporations.
For one, compared to it’s similarly-sized regional counterparts, Willard charges for parking. This reads like a joke may seem ultimately trivial, but, from the perspective of a thrifty traveler, this can easily increase the cost of travel – sometimes by a non-negligible percentage – when it could simply simply not a factor at BMI. You could spend a fraction of that on a tank of gas to Bloomington-Normal, and thanks to BMI’s location in southwestern BloNo, get there in nearly the same amount of time as it takes to drive out to Savoy’s southern reaches.
This is deeply ironic, because free parking isn’t even a good thing for cities, really! It encourages bad development and sprawl by necessitating parking lots. Parking lots are unusable space. But in Champaign-Urbana, the MTD doesn’t even run busses to the airport anymore – so a car is one-way-or-another required if you want to make a trip to the airport, unless you want to take a one-hour-ten-minute bus trek/walk combo that includes a stop at the Savoy Walmart.
Parking isn’t the end-all-be-all of this argument, not even close, but it’s incredibly emblematic of the problems facing Willard at present. The airport is simply not consumer-focused. It was a huge win when the coffee stand opened…in 2017 (peep the byline)! Before that, you had to get coffee out of a vending machine! An ancient one, at that!
Willard’s in a more precarious administrative position than Bloomington-Normal, though, and that’s a fair point. It’s owned by the University, and not administered by a local taxing body, meaning that BMI’s funding comes directly from taxpayers while Willard’s filters through the University and is subject to budget discussion. A quick search reveals that this University-owned model might not be the most sustainable – there is only one other University-owned commercial airport in America, at Penn State University in State College, PA, who had 193,534 riders in 2019, almost twice that of Willard.
So what do we do about it? It seems Willard’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.
At the same time though, we shouldn’t feel some sort of guilt for skipping Willard when there are both cheaper and more convenient options around. These things go hand-in-hand for the consumer. More customers fly out of BMI because it’s cheaper and easier for them to do so. In turn, BMI has an updated terminal and amenities, gets more airlines and routes, and develops a reputation as a great place to fly in and out of.
Willard could be competitive, but it requires holding them to a higher standard than they are at currently. It requires more structural change than explaining the administration and ownership hassles. It requires tangible changes with the customer in mind, some as simple as free parking. It’s a commercial airport. If they want to get more travelers, they need to make themselves more attractive to them, not just expect consumers to pay more for a worse experience. That’s capitalism, baby.
I love Champaign-Urbana. Part of that love is wanting it to be better than it is presently. This criticism isn’t coming out of thin air. It has motivation.
I want our sad little airport to be the best in the region. Can you imagine the tax benefits? But until then, we’re just going to have a sad little airport, and people will flock to Bloomington or Peoria or Springfield when they fly, as they are already statistically doing, benefiting those tax bases and not ours here in C-U.