The University of Illinois Willard Airport in Savoy is launching a campaign to incentivize Champaign-area residents to trade Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for a closer, local option.
On Oct. 26, the airport announced the new ‘Fly Local’ campaign, where local businesses and institutions are encouraged to pledge to check Willard’s travel options and expenses before exploring options at other airports.
Part of the campaign is looking to schools in the C-U area, as well as faculty, staff and students who could benefit from a more convenient method of travel.
Ashley Hipsher, assistant director of marketing and communication for Willard Airport, said part of Willard’s outreach efforts on campus is motivated by the already large population of students and staff who have had experiences flying with the airport.
“We are always marketing to everyone in the community that travels, including students and faculty,” Hipsher said.
Alex Liu, sophomore in DGS, has taken advantage of Willard’s services for travel. He first flew from Willard to Chicago, then to Washington, D.C., for winter break last year.
Liu said in an email that the attempt to catch an earlier flight ended poorly because of the small capacity of planes flying out of Willard, but despite having to wait several hours in the lobby, he was satisfied with the customer service.
“I would not mind flying out of Willard again,” Liu said. “I personally think it is very convenient that Champaign has an airport that can fly out to a larger hub for a connecting flight for people that need to be somewhere quicker, especially for students who need to get to where they need to go after taking their finals for break.”
Liu said he was unaware of the new campaign, but he added that formal advertising will help provide another source of awareness for possible student flyers.
“Most students generally will find out that there is an airport in Champaign through other students or through student organizations,” Liu said.
Since October, Parkland College in Champaign has already expressed its support to take the pledge, and Gene Cossey, executive director of Willard Airport, said he hopes the University will take a similar step soon.
“We’re constantly reaching out to students and faculty to make this their first choice,” Cossey said. “Currently, we’re asking units and departments at the University and asking them to make it their policy to check Willard first and choosing to fly Willard if it’s the most economical choice.”
To Cossey, having support from the University and surrounding area benefits not only Willard’s profit margin but the growth of the community as a whole.
Cossey said the growth of Willard’s business and services for better flight experiences come from community engagement.
“To provide new services, we really need the local community committed to using the airport first,” Cossey said. “That’s why we started the ‘Fly Local’ campaign; so we can get people to become engaged in this idea and at least check for flights out of Willard before anywhere else.”
Hipsher has reached out to many businesses that have pledged support for the new campaign and she is hopeful more growth and cooperation will be seen.
“Hopefully, businesses will see the value of being able to easily get to more than 230 cities in just a single stop from an airport in their backyard,” Hipsher said.
Cossey said Willard’s outreach efforts have already seen positive growth that created opportunities for new connections with airlines and new routes, including a new service to Charlotte, North Carolina, opening up in December in response to high demand.
“We’ve had great success in starting to fill up flights and engaging the community, to the point where we can approach airlines and show them numbers that argue strongly for additional service,” Cossey said.
Part of that is from the commitment shown by the community and the airlines subsequently listening to the different places the customers would want to go and what they would support, he said.
“We believe that it’s very important for everyone in the community to take advantage of the Willard Airport as a local resource,” Cossey said. “It’s a resource that is vital to the economic development of the community and also to the continued vitality of the University, not only to conduct the business that they do, but also to attract new faculty, staff and students.”
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