BLOOMINGTON - Peoria is beating Bloomington in the battle for new air service, but the destinations offered by Central Illinois airports are all about the same.
The Greater Peoria Regional Airport recently announced new flights to Detroit and Orlando, two destinations already served by the Central Illinois Regional Airport.
In Champaign, Willard Airport announced plans to fly to Las Vegas, as did the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield. Peoria already has flights to Sin City, and Bloomington will in August, the same time Vegas service takes off in Springfield and Champaign.
"Think of these airports as being compatible, not competitive. This intercity competition is way overblown," said Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based airport consultant who's worked with CIRA in the past.
Still, the hunt for service is very competitive. CIRA continues to lobby unsuccessfully for westbound service.
Peoria, meanwhile, expects to announce new service to Denver soon, said Ken Spirito, the airport's executive director.
Like other airports, Peoria offers base incentives to airlines that locate there or expand new service. Incentives include waived operating fees and marketing assistance, he said.
"But that's not the answer to air-service development," Spirito said. "The answer to air-service development is profit … We have to show these airlines that the service will be profitable."
CIRA offers incentives also, said Executive Director Carl Olson, who continues to target Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City as the airport's next destinations.
Olson is armed with $1 million to guarantee a new destination would turn a profit. Olson obtained the money as part of a federal grant requiring a local match.
The city of Bloomington and town of Normal each donated $200,000, with private donations accounting for the rest. The $850,000 federal grant expired before CIRA used it, but Olson can keep the local match.
Still, new service has eluded Bloomington.
"Air service is a scarce resource, and it's very competitive," Olson said. "It's something we work on regularly, and I'm sure neighboring airports do as well."
Many years ago, under the leadership of former executive director Mike La Pier, CIRA wrote the book on the solicitation of air service, Boyd said.
"I got calls from airline executives, saying 'Do you know (La Pier)? Can you call this guy off?" Boyd said.
La Pier once sent a proposal taped to a beach ball, hand-delivered by Mickey Mouse, to an airline in Florida.
He also purchased billboard space near an airline's corporate office that showed a Bloomington family shivering in the cold, saying they'd rather be in Orlando.
Those tactics don't work as well anymore, Boyd said.
"There's a limit to what airlines deal with," Boyd said. "You've got to be professional. Occasionally, a stunt is fine, but underneath that stunt, there has to be some hard data."
With a strong job market, stable business community and central location tied together by three interstates, CIRA has the data, he said.
This year, however, Peoria has been more persuasive, and next summer, the airport begins construction on a new $60 million terminal to accommodate more airlines, more destinations and more passengers, Spirito said.
"Peoria is a large market … We've got major businesses here. We have a strong economy … We have a population that generates business and leisure travel," he said. "For years, this community hasn't had the air service that it should have … I'll hold back comments on markets, but yes, there are (still) markets that could be served better."
In that sense, Peoria is playing catch up, filling in service holes, Boyd said.
"Just because Peoria is catching up does not mean Bloomington is falling behind," he said.