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CIRA Looks To Customs Service, Freight As Passenger Traffic Dips

Security checkpoint at airport with two travelers in line.
Colleen Reynolds
The security checkpoint at Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington.

A decline in business travel and increased low-fare competition from Chicago’s O’Hare airport were among the factors that drove down passenger traffic at Bloomington’s Central Illinois Regional Airport in 2017.

Overall passenger traffic at CIRA declined 12.4 percent in 2017, with 381,109 passengers flying in and out of the airport. The steepest decline was Delta—CIRA’s largest airline—which offers daily nonstop flights to Atlanta and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Delta shifted to smaller planes in 2017, said CIRA Executive Director Carl Olson.

“Unfortunately, we encountered some continued softness in travel, especially related to business travel in the summer months, which is usually our peak time. So as a result, it kind of dragged down our numbers,” Olson said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.

Airline consolidation continues to put pressure on CIRA. Olson said 86 percent of all domestic airline traffic is now carried by just four airlines, meaning there’s less competition. Another factor is that low-cost airlines like Frontier and Spirit have shifted from Chicago Midway to O’Hare, which prompted American and United to lower their fares accordingly, Olson said. That has impacted CIRA traffic, Olson said, as Central Illinoisans choose to drive to O’Hare to save money on airfare.

Olson said the “softness” in business travel is not directly attributable to State Farm, which has announced job cuts and office closings in recent weeks.

It’s a regional—not State Farm—issue, he said.

“When you see layoffs happening in other communities, that generates a business softness also. Which then also translates into reduced leisure travel, because if someone’s job is struggling or they’re temporarily laid off, they’re not likely to take a family vacation by airplane,” Olson said.

Meanwhile, CIRA saw a growth in FedEx freight moving in and out—around 12.7 million pounds in 2017 alone. And freight traffic was up 15.7 percent and 18.4 percent year-over-year in December and January, respectively, CIRA reported. (CIRA has two FedEx locations, one on the airfield and another on the truck side.)

FedEx has shifted freight traffic to CIRA from other Illinois communities in recent years, Olson said. They hope to soon land Springfield’s freight (now coming through St. Louis.)

“That helps drive new investment and job growth. That all leads to further economic output that the airport can help produce for the community,” Olson said.

Another priority for 2018 will be trying to create a small customs service at CIRA to accommodate corporate travel coming from other countries.

The Canadian company Brandt Industries, for example, recently opened its first U.S. manufacturing plant in McLean County. But if Brandt executives want to fly on a private plane from Canada to Bloomington, they need to stop first at another airport to clear customs. A one-inspector customs service at CIRA would address that, Olson said. That would save companies “tens of thousands of dollars per year, per aircraft,” he said.

“By having those services at CIRA, they’d be able to fly nonstop. The savings are an amazing amount of money. A lot more than you’d suspect,” he said.

The customs project was featured last week during the One Voice local lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. No taxpayer funds would be used, Olson said.

You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Olson:

GLT's full interview with Carl Olson.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.