PEORIA — A recent growth report is good news for the Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport, but not enough reason to relax about the future, says airport director Gene Olson.

Among U.S. airports with 5,000 to 25,000 weekly departing seats, Peoria’s ranks third in seating capacity growth since 2016. The growth rate was 28.7 percent, Bloomberg News reported in late May. Ranking second was the Asheville Regional Airport in North Carolina, with 33.2 percent, and first was the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport in Florida, with 33.7 percent.

“That’s the number of seats available,” Olson said of the seating capacity report. “The airlines wouldn’t be adding capacity if they weren’t filling the seats, so that's a good thing. If they add capacity and can’t fill the seats, they pretty quickly would pull back.”

Peoria has been filling seats. In June, 64,784 passengers traveled through the airport, breaking the prior month-high record set in March.

“These are exciting numbers because we’re not even fully into the busy summer travel season,” Olson said prior to that number being released.

May's passenger total of 60,261 was 4,000 higher than a previous record for that month set in 2014.

Three of the four airlines at the airport had significant increases in passengers in May compared to May of last year, Olson said. “This year to date, our traffic is probably 5.4 percent above what it was last year.”.

It was in May of last year that Allegiant Air added seasonal flights to Destin. Allegiant now serves six destinations from Peoria.

The low-cost carrier’s safety record has gotten some bad press, perhaps most notably a “60 Minutes” report in April, but Allegiant has continued to do well at airports such as Peoria’s.

“During May, American was the biggest” in Peoria in terms of passengers,” Olson said. “Allegiant was second, Delta third, United fourth. It definitely does vary from month to month.”

 

Leisure travel is crucial to the airport, but increasing business travel is a goal, Olson said.

Caterpillar Inc.’s announcement in April 2017 that it was moving corporate headquarters from Peoria to Deerfield has not hurt the airport, Olson said.

“The people who are flying here are not coming to see the C-Suite,” he said. They’re coming to see the factories, their machines being made.”

Olson wishes, however, that someone would make more pilots. That ongoing shortage among the commercial airlines poses a major challenge for Peoria’s airport and airports in general, hampering their expansion goals, he said.

Peoria’s airport recently asked the public in a survey if it would rather see flights to Denver or Los Angeles. The answer was Denver, “by far,” Olson said.

United stopped flying from Peoria to Denver in 2015, and while Olson would like to see service resumed, the pilot shortage could be a barrier to that and other destinations.

“When you talk to the airlines about new service, they just don’t have the pilots to do it,” he said.

Olson referred to what is known as the 1,500-hour rule, which resulted from a deadly crash Feb. 12, 2009, in New York state. Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed into a house as it approached Buffalo Niagara Airport. The crash killed all 49 passengers and crew and one person on the ground.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the plane crashed because the two pilots did not respond properly to cockpit warnings that the aircraft was about to stall.

Entry-level requirements for pilots were re-examined, and Congress passed the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010. The Federal Aviation Administration increased the minimum number of flight-training hours for commercial pilots from 250 hours to 1,500 hours. The rule took effect in 2013.

There is disagreement about whether the 1,500-hour rule was the most effective response to the crash, but Olson said it “dried up the pipeline” for new pilots, and the airlines “have to be much more selective about what they will try.”

“The military has done a better job of retaining pilots, but even they are having trouble finding enough pilots,” Olson said.

Olson said his focus has changed since he came to the airport in 2009. “My goals were more facility oriented, including getting the new (main) terminal up and running,” he said. “Now my goals are more service-oriented, and getting people to use the airport.”

The airport says a recent market analysis shows it draws 58 percent of the air travelers within a 25- to 40-mile radius. Of the 42 percent choosing another airport, 33 percent of those are choosing O'Hare International Airport.

This loss of local air travelers to other airports is called “leakage.” Olson said leakage and the pilot shortage pose the biggest challenge for the airport’s future.

“People here are buying tickets here. They’re just getting on planes somewhere else,” he said. “We’re mounting a fly-local campaign to get people to use their airport. It’s a use it or lose it situation.”

On a Thursday afternoon in June, travelers lined up at the American Airlines counter for a flight to Dallas-Fort Worth.

They included one young couple from Hanna City and their 11-month-old daughter. “We’re here because we live 12 minutes away,” the mother said, adding that the flight was more appealing than the long drive to Texas.

“We didn’t want to be stuck in the car with her for 12 hours,” she said, gesturing at the baby.

Olson noted that some passengers drive to Chicago instead of flying out of Peoria to save money. He suggests that they think more about what that drive, and the price of parking at O’Hare, will cost them.

“Your time is worth something, too,” he said.

Olson said he makes such points when he speaks to groups as part of the fly-local campaign. He talks about buying tickets here but going elsewhere to fly, and says:

“We know you’re doing this, we know you’re going to keep doing this, but we want you to feel really guilty about it.”

He said that comment gets a laugh, but “they blush a little bit. And that’s good.”