Electric vehicle production in Normal is helping boost another transportation option: air travel.
Central Illinois Regional Airport officials said Tuesday that Rivian Automotive played a key role in CIRA landing Delta Airlines' daily non-stop service to Detroit, starting next month--four years after Delta suspended the service.
Kristian Knittel, Rivian's group director for indirect purchasing, said the company assured Delta it will heavily use the daily flights as it ramps up production of its electric vehicles in Normal.
“They were looking for some guarantees and we partnered with the airport to be able to provide those guarantees, which is just another exemplification of the incredible partnership here,” Knittel said.
Knittel said Rivian plans to use between 50 and 150 seats weekly to and from the Motor City.
“We’ve had folks from the Detroit area who are driving their own vehicles and we have folks who are renting vehicles and driving, so it’s not comfortable," Knittel said. "Whichever way you go about it, it’s not comfortable.”
CIRA Director Carl Olson said the airport nearly had a deal in place with Delta Airlines for Detroit service in February when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“We were getting ready to make the final announcement and get it loaded in the system and have today’s event and it got torpedoed by COVID,” Olson said. “It was harder because we had to regroup and we came back strong and we were able to deliver it today.”
Olson said he expects the jet service will be used mainly by business travelers since it offers connections to Washington, D.C., New York, Boston and Europe and Asia--though he said that likely won’t fully rebound until 2021 because of the pandemic.
Delta could also receive revenue guarantees if the service underperforms. CIRA received a $500,000 Small Community Air Service Development program through the U.S. Department of Transportation to help Delta recoup any financial losses. Delta also could receive loss mitigation funds through a non-profit initiative headed by the McLean County Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber’s Community Air Service Initiative (CASI), started in 2012 to help the airport land additional service, has provided $100,000 in matching funds.
Chamber President and CEO Charlie Moore said some private investors wanted to keep their money in the program after Frontier Airlines announced daily service to Denver and the funding wasn’t needed.
“Our investors felt so strongly about the ability to assist in future air service opportunities that we maintained the funds for the next initiative that was right for our community,” Moore said. “I’m pleased to say that next opportunity has landed, or at least it will in the next few short weeks.”
CASI returned public funding it received from Bloomington, Normal and McLean County.
A portion of the funding also will be used to help market the Detroit connection, along with an additional $100,000 from CIRA, said airport spokesperson Fran Strebing.
Detroit International Airport is Delta’s second largest hub, offering service to more than 80 U.S. destinations and seven international destinations.
“We’re looking forward to offering new service and greater connectivity through our Detroit hub to Bloomington’s growing community,” said Scott Santoro, Delta’s vice president of sales. “Customers can expect the highest levels of cleanliness, more space and safer service from the moment they check in.”
CIRA last had non-stop service to Detroit in 2016. Olson said passenger numbers on that flight shrank after the Mitsubishi Motors plant closed the year before. The plant now houses Rivian's local operations.
Service to Detroit begins Oct. 11. Flights will leave Detroit International Airport at 4 p.m. EST weekdays and arrive in Bloomington at 4:17 p.m. CST. The return flight would leave Bloomington at 5:10 p.m. and land in Detroit at 7:25 p.m. EST.
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