News that Central Illinois Regional Airport's passenger counts are almost back to pre-9/11 levels is good news, indeed.
Success breeds success in the airline industry, as in many others. Higher numbers of travelers using the Bloomington-Normal airport will make it more appealing for expanded air service.
For several years in the late 1990s, CIRA was among the faster growing airports in the country.
The new terminal at Central Illinois Regional Airport was expected to usher in an era of even stronger growth, attracting more airlines serving more destinations, when it opened in 2001.
But before the ribbon could be cut that November, terrorists struck in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., contributing to an overall downturn in the airline industry.
The year before those attacks remains the high point for Central Illinois Regional Airport, with 476,063 passengers arriving and departing in 2000. However, the 459,888 passengers who used CIRA in 2005 are the second highest in the airport's history.
It will be crucial to maintain and build on that passenger growth, showing it's a trend.
The key to attracting carriers and adding destinations is making service profitable through consistently high passenger levels.
People who fly, but don't regularly use CIRA should take a closer look.
When higher gasoline prices, parking fees and time spent driving are factored in, they often offset perceived savings from driving to Chicago to catch a flight.
The Greater Peoria Area Regional Airport experienced even greater growth than CIRA last year, increasing from 452,448 passengers in 2004 to 520,034 last year. A big portion of that growth is credited to Allegiant Air, which saw its passenger count rise about 50 percent from 55,110 in 2004 to 83,447 in 2005.
However, more than half of that growth was a result of people flying to and from Orlando. That service, which began in late May ceased at the end of November. Allegiant still flies between Peoria and Las Vegas.
The popularity of Peoria's service to Las Vegas shows the value of having flights to western states.
Central Illinois Regional Airport is working toward that goal with a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Small Community Air Service Development Pilot Program. It needs $1 million in matching funds to keep the grant. Normal City Council has approved $200,000 toward the match. Bloomington City Council is considering the matter. The airport also is seeking private funds from corporations, such as State Farm Insurance Cos., that would benefit from the expanded service.
The money would be used for marketing and to provide guarantees that the airline would not lose money during the initial 18-month period.
Such enticements can be a double-edged sword. Once the guarantee-period ends, an airline may be lured away by another airport offering financial incentives.
This community and the surrounding area offer strong potential for greater use of Central Illinois Regional Airport. Let's live up to that potential.