Plane service still up in air ; Great Lakes Aviation blames shortage of aircraft for lack of flights

Some residents of the Burlington, Iowa, area have been making the nearly 100-mile trip to the airport in Peoria since the Southeast Iowa Regional Airport lost its only commercial air service in March.

Service between Burlington and St. Louis returns Oct. 7, but airport manager Sharon Leeper remains concerned about the return of passengers.

"We've been totally without service. It's been terrible. They've been driving to Cedar Rapids (Iowa), Peoria and Moline, and Des Moines. Some have even driven to St. Louis," Leeper said.

"It's going to be a challenge, but people are excited about having air service back, and we're going to certainly do some aggressive marketing," she said.

The Mississippi River community has a population of 25,400.

Airports in Springfield, Decatur, Marion and Quincy are facing the same dilemma nearly six months after the communities lost St. Louis service that traditionally had been one of the busiest commuter connections from central and southern Illinois.

Great Lakes Aviation just announced it would pick up AmericanConnection flights to St. Louis from Burlington and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., but has no timeline for service from the Illinois airports.

Great Lakes spokeswoman Monica Taylor said Wednesday a shortage of commuter aircraft has slowed resumption of service to Midwest markets lost when former carrier RegionsAir shut down in March.

Great Lakes is taking over a commuter contract with American Airlines previously held by RegionsAir, and Taylor said the airline needs to add three or four aircraft to its fleet of 25 turboprops to serve the Illinois airports.

Mark Hanna, executive director of Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, said Great Lakes remains the preference for resumption of St. Louis flights, but airport officials also are considering other carriers.

"We're trying to keep all of our options open as far as trying to get this service started sooner rather than later," said Hanna, who added that he had hoped for an announcement from Great Lakes by Labor Day.

The Springfield airport has daily service on United Express to Chicago and Washington, D.C., and twice-weekly flights to Las Vegas on Allegiant Air.

Hanna said strong demand, including overseas, has made it increasingly difficult for regional carriers in the United States to get long-term contracts for commuter aircraft. According to the Regional Airline Association, the 150.9 million passengers carried by 70 regional airlines in the United States for 2005 was up 12 percent from 2004.

Southern Illinois travel agency owner Roger Coracy said he questions why there seemed to be a rush to get rid of RegionsAir after the Federal Aviation Administration raised questions about crew-training procedures.

The airline, which served St. Louis from the Williamson County Regional Airport near Marion, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims alleging the contract was improperly suspended.

"Why try to get rid of an airline who, really to be honest with you, did a pretty good job? Recognize that they were having issues, but operated a good percentage of flights, and it's something that could have been resolved," said Coracy, president of B and A Travel Service in Marion and Carbondale.

The Williamson County airport has service to Midway Airport in Chicago, but Coracy said many southern Illinois residents are driving to St. Louis; Evansville, Ind.; Paducah, Ky.; and Nashville, Tenn., for connecting flights.

Coracy said he believes the Illinois communities can win back passengers once service to St. Louis is restored, but also questioned why elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., seemed determined to get rid of RegionsAir.

"There were people hell bent on running them out of business, and now what do we have?" he said.