A Well-Connected Impact

by Jennifer Davis
General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport

The Peoria International Airport offers a critical lifeline to the global economy.

During the short flight from Peoria to Chicago, as you fly over Illinois’ many construction zones, you probably aren’t pondering the economic impact of the Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport (PIA). But, you may be thinking about how happy you are to bypass the traffic snarls and congested check-in at O’Hare.

Thanks to daily flights to four of the five most connected airports in the world, PIA makes it easy to fly from Peoria to anywhere in the world.

Growth and the Ripple Effect
PIA has seen steady growth over the last several years, including four consecutive years of passenger records (2012-2015)—while the first three months of 2017 were all record months. In fact, March was the busiest month in airport history. PIA also boasts more nonstop destinations than any other Illinois airport outside of Chicago, and it has the ability to grow as our state-of-the-art terminal building, which opened in 2011, has the capacity to serve more than one million passengers annually.

In addition to the main terminal, last year the airport authority opened an expansion: the Ray LaHood International Terminal, named after the former congressman and U.S. transportation secretary, a Peoria native. The new addition includes a full-service U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility and two additional dual-purpose gates for either domestic or international travel.

“Airports are critical lifelines to the global economy, and Peoria offers easy access to that international community,” notes Director of Airports Gene Olson, who oversees both PIA and the Mt. Hawley Auxiliary Airport, a small general aviation airport in north Peoria. “In today’s world, businesses depend on a well-connected airport. That’s why having daily flights to so many of the most connected airports in the world is such a boon for our area. It’s not something most communities our size can boast.”

Peoria offers daily nonstop flights to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport—the busiest and most connected airport in the world. The remaining most-connected airports, as measured by OAG, a leading airline industry database firm, are, in order: Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Denver International Airport and Charlotte Douglas International Airport. All but Denver are served by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines at PIA.

Allegiant Air, a low-cost airline focusing on leisure travel, also offers nonstop flights to six destinations from Peoria: Destin/Ft. Walton Beach, Ft. Myers/Punta Gorda, Orlando/Sanford and Tampa/St. Petersburg in Florida, as well as Las Vegas, Nevada and Phoenix/Mesa, Arizona. In addition to inexpensive air fares, Allegiant offers travel packages, including hotel and car rentals.

“Allegiant regularly shares passenger data with us, and, thanks to the draw they have, we attract people from a good 75 miles and more away. In addition, they stimulate about 20 percent ‘reverse flow’ traffic, meaning people are coming from those leisure destinations to Peoria. We are attracting people who spend money in our city. They stay in our hotels and shop in our stores or, at the very least, eat in our restaurants,” Olson adds. “The ripple economic impact of our airport is something to be proud of.”

The Bottom Line
The direct economic impact of Peoria’s two airports is also impressive. Nearly 2,500 jobs and more than $300 million in economic activity can be tied to the Peoria International Airport and Mt. Hawley Auxiliary Airport, according to the last economic impact study prepared for the Illinois Department of Transportation, Division of Aeronautics.

The entire Illinois system of airports supports more than 337,000 jobs, with a combined payroll of $12.8 billion and economic output of $40.9 billion. While there are more than 700 airports in the state, most are general aviation airports that service corporate and recreational pilots. Only 12 Illinois airports, including PIA, offer scheduled commercial service, and only four have air traffic controllers working round-the-clock as PIA does. PIA is the only Illinois airport south of Chicago to have a 24-hour control tower.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a one-person office at PIA able to clear international flights of up to 15 people. About 200 corporate, small charter and general aviation flights are cleared through PIA’s Customs annually. The hope, however, is that PIA eventually expands its Customs operations to allow for commercial international flights, and the airport authority is working toward that end.

Also setting PIA apart among our neighboring airports is the 182nd Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard and the Army Aviation Support Facility #3 of the Illinois Army National Guard—both of which call PIA home.

Turbulence Ahead
Nationwide, airlines and airports are starting to feel the impact of a pilot shortage forecasted to mushroom through 2030, as the pipeline of new pilots cannot keep pace with impending retirements. As of 2016, 36 airports across the country have lost all commercial service, and hundreds have had reductions in service because there aren’t enough pilots to fly the airplanes. Regional carriers Republic Airways and SeaPort Airlines both declared bankruptcy in 2016, citing the pilot shortage. Republic, the second-largest regional airline in the U.S., has just recently emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Mesa Airlines Chairman and CEO Jonathan Ornstein recently told the Las Vegas Review Journal that the issue is “severe and growing.” He added that “almost every regional airline in the country has aircraft parked that they cannot staff.” Mesa currently operates PIA’s flights to Dallas/Fort Worth on behalf of American Airlines.

Beyond the pilot shortage, another pressing concern is aging infrastructure. “Both the state and federal governments are falling short in maintaining the physical infrastructure vital to keeping our people and goods moving around Illinois and the nation,” Olson says, noting that PIA’s control tower is almost 60 years old and in dire need of replacement. “We have completed a site selection study and have a new design for the tower. We just need the funding.”

A final concern for PIA is its proximity to large cities. More than 800 passengers every day fly out of PIA, but another 700 choose to start their trips at another airport.

“People should remember that every time they buy a ticket, they are voting with their money,” Olson explains. “Every time they board an airplane in Chicago, they are telling the airlines that is where that airplane needs to be. It’s a simple equation. If we want good air service in Peoria, we must support the flights that operate from here, or they will go away.”

Peoria’s ties to aviation are strong and deep, dating back to the summer of 1910 when the Wright brothers sent one of their first instructors to Peoria for an exhibition flight. Today, you can get on a plane in Peoria in the morning and be halfway across the world in a day.

“The access that we have to the world is precious, and we don’t take it for granted,” Olson adds. “Peoria International Airport has come far, but we still have a long way to go. As a community, we can get there together. iBi