In 2015, Willard Airport unveiled a new branding of Fly Champaign-Urbana, Last year they added United service and additional American Airlines flights, and saw the biggest increase in passengers in ten years. In just the past couple of weeks, they’ve launched online booking capabilities on their website. Under the direction of Gene Cossey, Executive Director, this little airport that’s seen then Senator John F. Kennedy deplane as well as hundreds of people gathering to protest the president’s travel ban, is looking toward a future of growth and expansion.
The airport, named for former University of Illinois president Arthur Cutts Willard, was established in 1945 as a home to the University’s Institute of Aviation. According to their website, scheduled commercial flights began in 1954. U of I voted to end their aviation program in 2011. Parkland College took up the program, and it's now a two year degree instead of a four year degree. With the U of I still maintaining ownership of the airport itself, it became clear that a different form of leadership was needed to oversee the day to day operations. Cossey (front and center in the photo below) filled that role in 2015.
Photo by Carly McCrory of the Champaign County Economic Developement Corporation
“I’m basically the first executive director the airport has ever had," said Cossey, "A lot of the administrative and director type roles were handled by different department administrators within the University. So there wasn’t really anyone with full time oversight of the airport. They had that bouncing around to different groups, and they realized that wasn’t working really well so they created the position of executive director. My role has been to get the airport back running on track of how you would operate an airport this size.”
The U of I ownership of the airport makes the day to day operations somewhat different than those of another airport of its size. While all airports have to operate under some form of government structure, the university ownership adds some layers of state governance that others may not have to deal with. However, Cossey appreciates the resources that the U of I has to offer. "We have a few more hurdles, but there’s also a lot of resources the University provides where other airports wouldn’t have access to those resources. We’ve got a great governance section, with people lobbying for the University, we have a good strong legal backing, we have a strong contracts and procurements and accounts payable systems through the university, we have a strong HR system. So it doesn’t really make it worse, it doesn’t make it better, it just makes it different."
One of his biggest challenges in this position has been shifting the public's perception of the airport. He wants it to be recognized as not just the "University's airport", but a community airport. He sees a viable community airport as one piece of the puzzle of economic growth for a community that is just as important as strong local businesses or schools. For Cossey, the focus of the airport has changed from being just an arm of the U of I to an economic asset for the region that benefits not only the University but local economic development as a whole. "The University itself wouldn’t be able to attract the businesses to Research Park or the professors that they have if there wasn’t an easy way to travel in and out of the area. One of my goals is to continue to develop the airport along the lines of being a strong economic driver. So more airline service, more reliable airline service, more destinations, and then also working on developing business around the airport. We’ve got additional property we could develop." He sees Willard as a vital component to attracting businesses to the area. "Having a commercial availability of flights, if that’s important to a business, and travel in and out is important to them, they’re going to want it to be right here. They’re not going to want to drive to Chicago, they’re not going to want to drive to Indianapolis, they’re not going to want to drive to Springfield. So it’s still just as viable and just as important that we have this resource right here, if we want to attract those types of businesses."
United's inagural flight at Willard, photo from Fly Champaign-Urbana
Cossey credits the Willard's most recent growth to an increase in seats flying in and out of the area with the addition of United service and additional flights added by American. He estimates that around three quarters of a million people a year are looking to fly either out of or into this area, and with the addition of close to 50,000 seats in the past year, those people are starting to take advantage. Now, he's looking at what will continue to expand the operations of the airport. "I think what we really want to look at right now is how do we capitalize on making it more attractive to fly in and out of here. What I have to show the airlines, of course, is that if they put a flight in here it’s more profitable for them than to have the passenger drive to Chicago or Indianapolis. One of the things we need for the passengers here, is to provide more alternatives. Right now we go to Chicago and we go to Dallas. If we could convince airlines to add an east coast destination, like Charlotte or New York, or going west to Denver, that would add more options. The other thing we want to do is look at getting a leisure airline here. Somebody like Allegiant or Frontier. That will stimulate even more demand. With the availability of those leisure airlines here in our market, we feel that will stimulate people to fly when maybe they wouldn’t otherwise." The addition of such an airline would be targeted to people who are looking for just what the terminology refers to, leisure. Think families heading to Orlando for their Disney vacation. Current flight offerings are convenient for business travellers or those flying solo, but maybe not so much for a family of four wanting vacation travel. Now, those families are driving to Orlando, or driving to Chicago, Indy, or Bloomington to catch their flight to Orlando. A leisure airline added locally would capture some of those customers.
Willard Airport is also home to Flightstar, which services aircraft, manages a flight team for corporate aircraft, and employs an additional 200 employees. They do nightly service for the American airlines flights, and they've recently built a new hanger that could support larger aircraft, something that could serve the airport well as they seek to attract more airlines and added flights.
Cossey hopes that the community will recognize the airport as an asset to C-U, the U of I, and the surrounding area.
"I think trying to get people to recognize that it’s also a community resource and community asset is very important, and getting people to think on the lines of supporting their local hometown airport...if you want more economic growth in the area, if you want the area to continue to be the strongest economic growing community in Central Illinois, which it is right now, the airport is one of those things to get behind and support."
Cover photo from the City of Champaign website.