Flight delayed: Willard Airport struggles to stay on time

Photo in airportDarrell Hoemann
on Tuesday, November 18, 2014.

Taking an expensive taxi from Willard Airport to O’Hare International Airport may not make much sense, but taxi driver Stephen Love knows that two to three times a week his company gets passengers who do just that.

Passengers will pay for the roughly 160 mile taxi ride because of airline delays and cancellations at the Savoy airport, and because they are desperate to make a flight connection.

“There are a few companies that would do it for a little cheaper, but for the most part the going rate is $350 from Champaign-Urbana to O’Hare,” said Love, who started working for R&H Cab last year.

Delays at the regional airport have been a chronic problem. About one out of every four flights leaving the regional airport from January 2013 through November 2014 was either delayed by at least 15 minutes or canceled, federal aviation statistics show. Delays cause the bulk of the problem, as cancellations make up only a small portion of all not on-time flights.

Some months and days are worse than others, making it difficult to predict whether fliers will make their connections in Chicago.

For example, during a three-day period in the middle of January 2014, only four of 17 flights left Willard on time. Five of those flights were canceled and one was diverted. “On time” is federally defined as taking off within 15 minutes of scheduled departure.

Yet, during the following three days, 17 of 18 flights left the airport on time.

In one week this January, Jan. 7 through Jan. 13, travelers encountered a much rougher time. A review of 47 flights showed 12 flights were delayed, and nine flights were canceled.

Compared to other national airports, Willard has recently ranked near the bottom in on-time departure performance. The regional airport was ranked 285th of 320 national airports in 2013. It is ranked 251st of 324 airports through November 2014.

Transportation statistics show that nearby Bloomington ranked 215th in on-time performance in 2013 and is ranked 189th so far this year.

“Delays and cancellations have continued to grow year upon year across the country,” said Jack Penning, executive director of air service strategy and development for Sixel Consulting Group. “We just don’t have the air-traffic control system that’s adequate for the volume of flights that we have in this country.”

Sixel Consulting Group recently completed an overall study of Willard that showed nearly two out of three travelers in the area drive to other airports such as Indianapolis, Chicago or Bloomington rather than fly out of Willard.

In November, Kathryn Krupp traveled from New York to visit her daughter, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She said the trip to Champaign was on time but that she has had delays “several times.”

“A lot of times flights get canceled or delayed, and then if you have to catch a connection in Chicago that can be a little rough because you can miss it,” Krupp said.

American Eagle is the only commercial operator at Willard, which is owned and operated by the University of Illinois. It currently has four to six flights a day to O’Hare, along with one flight a day to Dallas. Penning said Willard needs to get flights to a major East Coast city because those flights are canceled or delayed less often.

Late incoming flights contribute to delays

Typical reasons for delays show airport operations are not the cause of the problems.

There are generally five major reasons for delays and cancellations, according to federal statistics. Those reasons are air carrier delays, extreme weather, late-arriving aircraft, security delays and “National Aviation System delays,” a broad category for setbacks such as non-extreme weather and heavy traffic volume.

Transportation statistics show that late-arriving aircraft is a top cause of late departing flights at Willard.

Of the 848 flights that left at least 15 minutes late from Willard from January 2013 through November 2014, about 42 percent were delayed at least in part because of planes getting into Willard late.

“You’re going to get delays if there’s weather somewhere you wouldn’t even think of,” said Steven Wanzek, Willard airport manager. “There’s weather in Buffalo – what a surprise it’s snowing in Buffalo in the winter. If the airplane that’s coming from Buffalo goes to Chicago and its next destination is Champaign, we’re going to get a delay here.”

Carrier delays – which are caused by airplane maintenance, crew problems and baggage loading – are also prevalent issues. During same nearly two-year window, about 37 percent of delayed flights were late at least in part because of these circumstances.

“There are very few things that happen locally that cause the delay,” said Wanzek. “At least, certainly, within the airport’s control.”

With a majority of area travelers choosing other airports – the delays can be bad for business.

Still, Sixel Consulting found that Willard is currently profitable.

Penning said the situation may improve because O’Hare recently added a fourth, parallel runway, which means it can handle more simultaneous arrivals and departures, and prevent delays down the line.

“Delays and cancellations are one of the biggest factors that the small communities deal with – and trying to encourage people to use those airports,” Penning said. “The more reliable service, the more people choose these services.”

Other specific factors that can also hurt on-time performance include federal regulations and crew rest.

“There are few things that an airport manager can do,” Wanzek said. “An airport manager, pretty much, is like a landlord. I mean, we own the buildings, we maintain the grounds, we plow snow, cut grass, things like that.”

Still a convenient airport

Sixel Consulting Group brought up parking as “a hot button topic in the local community.” Willard Airport charges parking fees, while other nearby airports – most notably Bloomington-Normal – offers free parking.

However, it determined the loss of passengers because of parking concerns is “a myth.”

Wanzek said the convenience of a nearby airport with friendly staff and short lines also helps outweigh the negatives associates with parking fees, an idea that Krupp also echoed.

“It’s very easy to navigate,” she said. “I think all of the staff is very helpful, and the rental cars are close by.”

If there is a delay or cancellation, passengers can rent a car or drive their own cars instead of hiring a taxi.

Renting a car to drive to Chicago costs about $180, plus fuel expense, though cars are not always immediately available at the four rental car companies Willard hosts. Renting a car not only gives travelers more control of getting to their connection on time, but it can be less expensive or about the same price as booking a flight – even with parking fees at O’Hare.

For example, a rental car for four days and parking at O’Hare could total about $230, while a flight to and from O’Hare from Willard could cost more than $313.

Despite the different options, some still may prefer to keep taking their chances at booking a flight out of Willard.

“Now, I continued to book flights in and out of Champaign, so maybe I haven’t learned my lessons – or maybe I do believe it’s convenient when it works,” Penning said. “[Delays are] a problem for every traveler.”

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