Decatur, Ill. Airport's Future Lies in Freight, Private Air Service

Mar. 28--Airport's future lies in freight, private air service

There's been a lot of news recently about Decatur Airport. To bring you up to date:

The airport recently learned it would receive a $1.9 million federal grant to improve and expand one of its taxiways. The improvement is important because it will help serve the large Boeing 757s used by UPS and also accommodate companies with large planes that will visit Decatur for the 2007 Farm Progress Show.

At the same time, Decatur Airport, along with airports in Marion and Quincy, is trying to convince the state of Illinois to provide $3.3 million that would be used to lure an airline to operate between those communities and Chicago's Midway Airport. Decatur currently has flights only to St. Louis. That airline, Trans State, has announced it wants to pull out of Decatur, but the airport is guaranteed flight service to St. Louis for at least another year.

Recently Team Decatur sponsored a tour of the airport, attended by Rep. Bob Flider and representatives from other legislatures, to look at its current operations and possibilities.

The Decatur Park District, which owns and operates the airport, recently approved a $4 per passenger fee that can be used for airport improvements. The fees can be used to fund Federal Aviation Administration approved projects.

The recent activities illustrate the airport's importance as both a passenger and freight service and also paint a picture of the airport's potential in becoming an economic development catalyst for Decatur and Central Illinois.

The greatest potential undoubtedly lies on the freight and private flight side of the business. With an established, but underutilized, foreign trade zone and a runway system that rivals any community in downstate Illinois, Decatur Airport is poised to attract even more commercial and freight business.

The airport already serves UPS and also houses planes and facilities for several companies that operate private planes in and out of the community.

One of the biggest obstacles to growth in this part of the business is the lack of easy road access to and from the airport. It's clear that a bypass around the east side of Decatur would help this situation a great deal. But a bypass is several years away, and community leaders need to figure out ways to mitigate that issue in the meantime.

The passenger business is more difficult, but still important. The fact is, without federal subsidies, no airline would provide passenger service in and out of communities such as Decatur. But as long as subsidies exist -- and there's no reason to believe they are going away any time soon -- Decatur should keep making the case for passenger service.

Passenger service to and from Chicago's Midway Airport would create many additional options for passengers. But because those funds would have to be approved by competing airports, it may be politically difficult to get the money approved.

The recognition of the airport's importance in creating jobs is a good start. So is understanding that the airport provides two services. While all opportunities should be pursued, it's fairly clear that the greatest reward lies in the development of service to freight operations and private air facilities.

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