BLOOMINGTON — After a steady 2016, Central Illinois Regional Airport traffic has tumbled this year — and officials aren't sure why or if it will improve.
By enplanements — passengers getting on and off flights, a metric officials use to measure how successful an airport is — CIRA declined 13 percent in the first eight months of 2017 versus the same period in 2016, the airport reported.
That's disappointing after enplanements were virtually identical from 2015 to 2016, increasing 0.5 percent, but not surprising given a trend of plunging figures for the airport. Enplanements dropped a third from 2011 to 2016.
"Our leisure traffic is very strong, but our business traffic has been soft. I don't know what changed this year,” said CIRA Executive Director Carl Olson. "It’s getting harder. It’s going to continue to be competitive. That means the (Bloomington-Normal) Airport Authority will continue to raise its game.”
Among Illinois airports with similar traffic, General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International increased enplanements by 22 percent from 2011 to 2016; Chicago/Rockford International dropped by less than 1 percent; and Quad City International in Moline dropped by 12 percent.
Olson pointed to two main factors that have hurt CIRA over the last five years: airline consolidation and declining business travel.
"Consolidation really took hold of the airline industry, pushed forward by the rapid run-up of oil prices and the recession. That's resulted in fewer airlines, fewer flights and fewer seats," he said. "That produces record airline profits, but capacity (flights and seats) is synonymous with inventory, and if you have less inventory, you’ll have less sales.”
Olson said consolidation has hit CIRA especially hard because it favors large airports like Chicago's O'Hare International that are more likely to get traffic from large, consolidated carriers. He said budget airlines like Frontier and Spirit that fly out of Chicago but not Bloomington have taken local business.
“A number of our travelers have opted to spend the time and money to drive to other airports to capture these lower prices,” he said.
Consolidation should slow, however, simply because so few major airlines are left, and new ones aren't likely to pop up, Olson added.
Officials also are optimistic about business travel improving as the economy grows, both locally and nationally.
"We’re hopeful we’re starting to see things turn,” said Fran Strebing, deputy director for marketing. "We’re not sure what Rivian will produce for us, but we’re hopeful, and things that happen in Decatur or Pontiac also impact us.”
Rivian Automotive bought the former Mitsubishi Motors North America plant in Normal in January with the intention of starting manufacturing there in 2019.
Olson said a healthier economy would help officials sell CIRA to airlines.
"The airport has no say in how an airline operates, but we become the advocate for the community to say, 'Here’s a market you’re not paying attention to,'” he said. “We say the same to (local businesses that fly).”
Though further traffic declines could threaten Federal Aviation Administration grants to CIRA and concession businesses in the terminal, Olson said the airport authority is in good financial health despite the drop in business.
CIRA could get a boost if Congress approves a bump from $4.50 to $8.50 in the maximum passenger facility charge, a fee airports assess to each ticket that funds infrastructure projects.
Officials have also sought legislative changes that would let them expand CIRA's property tax base from Bloomington-Normal to all of McLean County and dramatically increase tax rates, but that plan stalled in the General Assembly.
Olson said if either proposal passes, the airport authority will target a specific need before increasing fees or taxes.