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Thursday, May 24, 2007 02:32 pm

The plane truth

Flying out of Springfield is proving tougher these days. Here’s why — and what you can do to help reverse the trend.

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Untitled Document Remember the day when some flights offered breakfast or lunch? At the least, a bag of pretzels and can of soda was standard fare on all flights. These days, even pretzels are a rarity. No-frills flights reflect the financial pressure that passenger airlines face everywhere. As Mark Hanna, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, explains, “We are in a new era of airline service. 9/11 changed so much — bankruptcy and other side effects of the disaster. Regional airlines have been hurt.”
Talk to anyone who has flown in and out of Springfield, and almost immediately you will hear complaints about reduced service, delays, and cancellations. Many have just given up and instead drive to St. Louis to avoid missing connecting flights. Since 1994 my work has necessitated extensive travel, and I have witnessed the erosion of service from fast and affordable to what one man seated next to me on a recent flight described as a “hassle.”
Dick Austin, a member of the Springfield Airport Authority board of commissioners, concedes that delays are commonplace, something he blames on airlines’ “stretching the use of their planes” as they deal with the pressure of high fuel, equipment, and maintenance costs. But Springfield’s and the region’s problems go back well before 9/11 jolted the business. About 25 years ago, Austin says, Springfield was told by the airlines to work out plans with Decatur, Bloomington, Champaign, and Peoria to create a regional hub in Lincoln to serve central Illinois. “Springfield scoffed at the idea — we had Ozark at the time, and we were the capital city,” he says. “People thought we would be able to maintain service by strictly relying on passengers, but that has not happened. The airlines have gobbled up the smaller carriers. Today, only about six major airlines really exist. To bring in an airline, we must pay — or have a company underwrite the cost. That is what Peoria and Bloomington did; Caterpillar in Peoria and State Farm in Bloomington underwrite the airline service by guaranteeing a certain number of seats daily.”
Without that underwriting, Springfield must rely on passengers, and so the vicious circle begins — delays and cancellations cause people to quit filling the seats, and when the seats aren’t filled prices increase and airlines leave.
The price of tickets may not cover total costs. For example, the Springfield airport must pay a terminal fee of $18,000 per month at Midway, a gate fee of $2,700 per landing, plus landing and refueling fees. “We once had 81,000 people fly out of Springfield annually, meaning, we met the load requirement for United and American to provide service,” says Austin, “but it costs as much as $3 million to get an airline.”
The figure of 81,000 passengers fell to around 70,000 and dipped a bit lower after American dropped service. The airlines look at demand. With demand come more offerings — in both the number of flights and the variety of airlines.

Unlike neighboring cities, where top businesses guarantee filled seats, Springfield’s top employer — state government — competes with the commercial airlines. That’s led to heated debates here. Some say that if the state would guarantee a daily number of seats, Springfield airline service would be more competitive; some, though, insist that it wouldn’t matter. According to the auditor general’s report of January 2007, the state fleet cost $19.97 million to maintain during fiscal years 2003-2006. State planes (shuttles that hold eight passengers) fly four times a day (two flights to and from Chicago Midway). The Illinois Department of Transportation charges an agency $59.86 for a one-way flight ($119.72 round trip), even though the true cost to the Department of Transportation is $270 one way ($540 round trip).
The state’s procurement agency, Central Management Services, contracted with Big Sky Airlines for $99 one-way flights — with a walk-up provision, meaning prior booking is not required. Just show up for a flight (depending, of course, on seat availability). Some argue that the state could (or should) put its money into the commercial airlines and continue to offer agencies the lower rate of $60 one way, which would still bring the state’s cost in under the current cost and would serve as a guarantee that more seats would be filled on the commercial flights. This would increase usage and therefore attract more service to the city. Those who line up on this side of the argument say that it is part of the state’s obligation to help increase airline service in and out of the capital city, which would in the long run bolster the state’s revenue.
Others argue that the state will pay one way or the other — either by maintaining its own fleet or by paying commercial airline costs — and they say that a cheaper cost to an agency helps keep state costs down. Big Sky, still flying out of Springfield, has 19-seat planes. The airline once offered $79 tickets but could not get enough passengers to support that price. The ticket price was increased to $89, then to $99, and finally to $109, with the walk-up flights still priced at $99. In a recent promotion, Big Sky recently offered a $39 one-way flight to and from Chicago Midway. Big Sky wants to be successful in Springfield. The airline has opened a maintenance center here (meaning that the airplanes come here to be serviced), and it’s considering a Springfield-Cincinnati flight, which would connect to a Delta Air Lines hub. State agencies have access to the state fleet, but, because travel budgets are limited, many do not use it. If an agency needs to send its workers to frequent meetings in Chicago, spending $120 for each round-trip state-plane flight when agencies would rather spend their travel allowances to send their people to national and international symposiums just isn’t an option. The question remains: If the state guaranteed seats on commercial airlines, would we have better service and competitive airlines here? We may never know, because people on both sides of the issue don’t really seem willing to give up their views. Hanna, the airport executive, says, “For the function of the state, there is a need to have a fleet, maybe for the top executives or for emergencies or for last-minute meetings, but the day-to-day worker could take advantage of the walk-up flights offered at the airport.”

In March, RegionsAir was ordered to suspend service by the Federal Aviation Administration, temporarily cutting Springfield’s link to Lambert St. Louis International Airport. Inadequate pilot training was the reason cited. “The St. Louis flights were profitable, but none of us had a choice when the FAA shut them down,” Austin says, “and, we certainly didn’t want unsafe conditions for travelers.”
It took until this month to entice another carrier to step in. By the end of this month Great Lakes Airllines will have marked its return to the Springfield market by offering service to St. Louis.  Great Lakes used to serve Springfield, flying into Meigs Field in Chicago with 20,000 passengers a year. But Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered the lakefront airport bulldozed, and then Great Lakes was squeezed out of O’Hare. Springfield-Chicago Midway service was then provided by ATA Airlines, which offered a $107 one-way ticket. ATA went bankrupt in 2004, and Springfield lost yet another carrier. That seems to be the way of the airlines. Listening to the news, you hear constant reports of airlines’ losing money, declaring bankruptcy, and reneging on their workers’ promised pensions. Hanna’s explanation — that 9/11’s ramifications are still being felt — seems to be true. The biggest news for Springfield came with the launch of direct service from here to Washington Dulles, at the end of April, the result of a collaboration by several key players, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who helped secure a $390,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Small Community Air Service Development Program. The Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce also made a substantial financial commitment. “Air service is a critical component of a healthy economic climate,” says chamber president Gary Plummer. “Having the only direct air service to Washington, D.C., in central Illinois certainly gives our airport an important niche to the market.”
I have been traveling to Washington four times a year since 1994, so I was eager to try out the new flight and curious as to whether I would save time or money. I saved on both. The ticket cost $250, cheaper than any I have ever had on American or United. From the moment we left the gate in Springfield to the time I walked into my hotel room on Capitol Hill, the trip was, amazingly, only three hours — and that was even with a delay in baggage claim, a wait for the shuttle-bus driver, and a 45-minute ride from Dulles into the city. Some have said that the flight would be more convenient if it landed at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, closer to the city, instead of Dulles, which is so far out. The ride really was more pleasant than I expected, and, though not as convenient as flying into Reagan National, it was still faster than flying by way of St. Louis or O’Hare to Washington. The once-a-day flight out to Washington leaves at 5: 15 p.m. Some say that the flight should be earlier in the day. Hanna and Austin both say that the airport board analyzed options, found that there were many connecting flight possibilities once one arrived around 8 p.m. in Dulles, and determined that someone with a morning meeting in Washington could fly in one night and return the next. (A daily return flight leaves Dulles at 4:45 p.m. and arrives here at 6:30 p.m.). On my flight, 26 of the plane’s 50 seats were filled. One couple was excited about being able to fly straight to D.C. to visit their grandchildren; others were happy that the flight was so smooth and on time. On the return flight, a few days later, 38 of the 50 seats were filled. The man next to me kept exclaiming that it was amazing that we were actually getting this flight into Springfield. He had just made a connecting flight from Orlando.
Asked what needs to happen for air service to the capital city to improve, and airport director Hanna refers to the complexity of the problem. “There is no silver bullet,” he says. At the same time, however, the new service to Washington, D.C., illustrates the basic requirements to maintain and improve service: • Springfieldians need to patronize the airport; otherwise, we risk seeing the number of flights and carriers continue to decline. Less air service means fewer tourists visiting us and fewer businesses willing to locate or expand here.
• Local residents, who are convinced that air travel from Springfield is too costly, need to take another look. After factoring in the price of gasoline, travel time, and parking (parking at our airport is free), I’m not convinced that flying out of other airports is cheaper. • More Springfield businesses, either separately or jointly, need to emulate civic-minded companies in other Illinois communities and agree to underwrite service. Whether it’s feasible in the long run, there should at least be an ongoing conversation — and many need to collaborate on possibilities.
Cinda Klickna, a regular contributor to Illinois Times, travels extensively as an officer of the Illinois Education Association.
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