As Passenger Traffic Continues to Slide, CIRA Seeking Logistics Companies to Boost Activity

As passenger traffic continues to decline at the Central Illinois Regional Airport, airport officials are rethinking their economic development strategy in 2018.

Enplanements (or the number of passengers boarding flights at the airport) have been on the decline at CIRA for years, dropping a third from 2011 to 2016. The past year was no exception, with a 12% drop from 2016 to 2017.   

CIRA Executive Director Carl Olson said airline consolidation remains a significant challenge for the airport. Bankruptcies and mergers over the last 16 years brought the number of major U.S. airlines from ten to just four, carrying over 80% of all U.S. traffic. Frontier Airlines dropped service to CIRA in 2015 after the company restructured as a budget airline.

Olson said while leisure traffic remained strong, business traffic has declined over the last year, further decreasing enplanements.

CIRA Deputy Marketing Director Fran Strebing said monitoring traffic on “business destination” airlines and flights like Delta’s Atlanta and Minneapolis-St. Paul service helps CIRA get an idea of its mix of business-leisure travel. Delta reduced its service to Minneapolis-St. Paul from two daily flights to just one at CIRA in 2017.

Just a 45-minute drive west, passenger traffic at General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport (PIA) saw four record months in 2017.

In November, Director of Airports Gene Olson (of no relation to CIRA’s executive director) reported a 2% increase in year-to-date enplanements from 2016 to 2017 at PIA. (Gene) Olson estimated that final December numbers would prove 2017 as the airport’s third best year.

To help boost passenger traffic, (Carl) Olson said CIRA is “constantly engaged in air service development,” which includes efforts to bring in larger planes, schedule more frequent flights and bring service to new destinations.

It also means convincing travelers in Central Illinois to choose CIRA over other regional and national airports.

To that end, CIRA spends between $250,000 and $300,000 a year on a mix of marketing efforts, from radio and television advertising to social media and promotions. To date, the airport has spent or committed to spend a total of $250,818 in marketing funds through the end of the fiscal year--about 6.4% of its current $3.9M operating budget.

“We are vying for passengers in our market and in outer markets who have choices for where and how to travel,” said Striebing. “Other facilities want our travelers as much as we want theirs to maintain and increase the level of air service offered here.”

 

As consolidation drives up ticket prices, Striebing said the airport can’t rely on cheap flights to attract passengers and is focusing instead on convenience, supporting the local economy and other benefits from using CIRA. A strategic firm specializing in airports is helping CIRA fine-tune its messaging and target demographics as part of a new marketing and communications plan, set to launch by the end of the quarter.

While enplanements took a disappointing turn in 2017, air cargo traffic performed well at CIRA, with a 10% year-to-date increase in October over 2016. For an airport struggling to boost passenger counts, attracting fulfillment and distribution activity to the region could prove a more promising business venture.

FedEx Express helped boost that activity, transitioning its Champaign traffic to Bloomington in the fall of 2017. Olson said the community’s geographic location makes logistics (also referred to as fulfillment and distribution) a promising industry for growth in the region.

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FedEx increased operations at the airport in 2017

The FedEx subsidiary first opened its distribution hub at CIRA in February 2015. Olson said the $5M public-private partnership helped FedEx Express expand its service from three markets at its PIA facility to five at CIRA, with the potential soon to add a sixth.

 

For Olson, FedEx’s growth at CIRA is an example of how other companies in the industry might find success in this area. “We sit not only within the largest population concentration in the state after the Chicago metro area, but we’re also two hours from Indianapolis, two hours from St. Louis and two-plus hours from Chicago. So if you look from a distribution standpoint, it’s a very competitive advantage.”

The Bloomington Normal Airport Authority (BNAA), CIRA’s governing body, is working with the Economic Development Council (EDC) to encourage other logistics companies to plant roots at CIRA. Both the BNAA and EDC are charter members of BN Advantage, an initiative to market McLean County as an “employment and lifestyle destination” to outside businesses and residents.

The airport authority doesn’t receive any BN Advantage program funds; as a nonprofit, the EDC raises funds for BN Advantage, with McLean County, the Town of Normal and the City of Bloomington as its primary supporters.

While the airport authority markets CIRA to people and airlines, BN Advantage markets the airport to site selectors as a regional asset, said Zach Dietmeier, director of marketing and communications for both the EDC and BN Advantage.

Dietmeier said the airport is equipped with the type of infrastructure that fulfillment and distribution centers typically seek, including site-ready property with the option to build runway and railway tie-ins. CIRA’s airfield itself was built with distribution in mind, including pavement designed to accept wide body aircraft and CAT II precision approach equipment to enhance reliability, Olson said.

CIRA also lies within the EDC-administered enterprise zone, which gives economic incentives to companies that build and expand in McLean County. The EDC currently lists property at CIRA through its online Location One Information Systems (LOIS) program, where site selectors can search for available buildings and sites in the area.

Dietmeier declined to share whether any site selectors had their eyes on CIRA or other facilities in McLean County. “These deals are not done until they’re on paper. Depending on where we are in talks, [sharing] may make the difference in whether somebody stops considering us.”

Dietmeier said to look for more public marketing efforts from BN Advantage in 2018.

“It’s been obvious for several years now that [enplanements] have gone down, but from a development standpoint, we couldn’t be happier with the airport,” said Dietmeier “It’s a very salable thing.”