Bruce Carter began flying when he was just 14 years of age. In the mid-1970s he began his career in air transportation in Mankato, Minnesota, working his way up to a pilot for a fixed-based operator (similar to Peoria’s Byerly Aviation located at the Greater Peoria Regional Airport).
In 1978, he was hired by the Federal Aviation Administration as an air traffic controller, working out of Des Moines, Iowa, until he lost his job in 1981 when President Reagan dismissed striking air traffic controllers.
Shortly thereafter, Bruce became airport manager at Clarion, Iowa, where he also managed the airport’s fixed-base operation. In 1984 he assumed the position of Airport Operations Manager at Waterloo, Iowa, soon moving up to Director of Aviation. Then, in 1991, he became Director of Aviation for the airport in Springfield, Illinois, until 1994 when he assumed the position of Director of Airports for the Greater Peoria Regional Airport Authority.
The past decade has brought major changes to the Greater Peoria Regional Airport. How has the airport changed and how have those changes impacted the community?
My predecessor, Rob Burling, who was here for 28 years, worked with the airport authority to secure Federal Aviation administration funds to expand the airport’s infrastructure, in order to fulfill a vision for the airport. Right now we are the only airport in the state of Illinois outside of Chicago which has a 10,000-foot runway. We have an air freight facility which has attracted several air freight carriers and seen two buildings constructed over the last four years. This has led to double-digit increases in the air freight business over the last five years.
We have four major air freight carriers today because of the commitment of this airport to the expansion of air freight – Federal Express, Airborne, Emery and DHL – in addition to smaller companies.
The lengthening of our secondary runway to 8,000 feet which was just completed this summer has been essential. Our 10,000-foot runway – near its 20-year life – was deteriorating badly, and we had to make sure we had a secondary runway to accommodate the traffic since the primary runway will be undergoing renovations during the spring and summer of 1996 when it will be closed for approximately four to six months.
The vision and planning of this airport authority has put the Peoria airport on the map. The authority is very impressive – seven professional business people who work very hard for the Peoria area.
What are the assets the Greater Peoria Regional Airport Authority brings to the table when selling Peoria’s air transportation?
When I was considering the Peoria job, I was impressed with the vision of the airport authority, which resulted in an excellent infrastructure for air freight and a base for economic development on the property owned on the south side of the airport.
A 10,000-foot runway is very valuable to an airport manager. That’s something you can go out and market to air freight carriers and businesses throughout the world.
Another thing I was very impressed with was the new $50 million Air National Guard base, which at the time was transitioning from F-16s to C-130s. It’s great to have a C-130 base right here at the airport.
We are the only airport in Illinois outside of Chicago that has a 24-hour control tower – staffed 24 hours every day, seven days a week. That means when airplanes land in the middle of the night, there is a controller right here in our tower who can control the air traffic in and out of the facility.
We also have a 24-hour-a-day fixed-base operations here – Byerly Aviation, which has been around for years. The stronger airports in the country have an operation like Byerly. It means you have people available at all hours to provide fuel service to air freight carriers and general aviation.
You’ll notice that my title is “Director of Airports.” The airport authority operated the airport on the north side of town – Mt. Hawley Airport – a general aviation facility which has over 60 based aircraft. There is a lot of interest in this facility. We have a waiting list of people wanting to get new hangars. We are in the process of building new hangars to accommodate the growth at Mt. Hawley.
Despite the growth of the Greater Peoria Regional Airport in freight and cargo, passenger service has deteriorated significantly over the past few years and jet service has virtually disappeared, leaving commuter air service. Why is this?
Following deregulation of the airline industry in 1978, Peoria saw a general decline in passenger traffic. In the mid-1980s, it began coming back up, but has declined again the last couple of years. In 1986 there was decent jet service by several carriers to different hubs.
I don’t know exactly everything that occurred, but when you are running jet service, you have to put a lot of people on the planes, and that just didn’t happen. A 727, which seats 140 passengers, would need to have at least 60 percent occupancy. That’s quite a few people.
Another factor was the airlines’ move to the “hub and spokes” system. American and United established their hub at O’Hare; Ozark and TWA established theirs at St. Louis. When the jets didn’t fill up, the airlines went to the smaller airplanes we see today.
We are working very hard to try to get our passenger traffic back up. We are down approximately nine percent for 1995 compared to 1994. That concerns us. There are many related factors; some people don’t like airplanes with propellers on them; some people think they need to rife a jet from their point of departure to their final destination.
What is the current level of passenger service at the airport?
A lot of people don’t think we still have jet service in Peoria, but we do operate two jets per day to Denver, under the same route structure United operated under. I am concerned, however, because we are not putting many people on those planes. Given the number of people we are putting on those flights to Denver, I’m not sure how much longer the carrier can operate. We have to almost double the current numbers, I believe, to make it economically feasible for them to continue with that jet. I’m sure there are other communities in the Midwest which could put more people on it.
We have ten flights a day to St. Louis with the ATR, which I consider to be one of the best airplanes in the world. These airplanes seat 48 passengers; they have overhead compartments, flight attendants and restrooms. You can put a jet and a prop jet in the air at the same time from Peoria to Chicago or St. Louis, and they will arrive at those destinations in the same amount of time.
We have nine flights a day to Chicago on American Eagle and United Express. I think our job for the immediate future is to make sure we keep nine flights going in and out of O’Hare. New foreign carriers could conceivably take those slots away from us. That concerns me.
Another thing that concerns me is the reliability of air service. We have been getting many complaints from customers about unreliable service and cancelled flights both in and out of Peoria. We have met with corporate officials of both American and TWA about these concerns. If our passengers feel the flights are not going to be reliable, that puts them on the highway.
Another problem is air fares. When we have an air fare war we are as competitive as any airport in the country. I will be flying soon from Peoria to London for $493 round trip. When we are not in an air far war, however, we are not competitive. We need to make sure that gets corrected.
Local companies face a great deal of frustration in flying people in and out of Peoria in a timely manner. Given the realities of today’s industry, what can be done to maximize passenger service in Peoria?
My philosophy is to work with existing carriers to make sure they provide the best possible reliable service with the best air fare structure. We have been doing that. We are still somewhat frustrated with some of the carriers.
The airport authority hired an air service consultant a couple of months ago – Kiehl Hendrickson Group, of Minneapolis – to give us a synopsis of what the airport can do to attract additional service to various cities. The first part of their study showed us some of the air carriers we should target. The airport authority then decided to hire this consultant to do that. The first carrier we will be looking at is Desert Sun – an American West Express carrier out of New Mexico – which feeds the Phoenix hub. They operate a new jet called the Fokker 70 which seats 79 passengers. Many people in this area will remember America West when they operated service out of the Quad Cities a few years ago.
A second carrier we plan to look at is a new company called Valuejet which feeds a hub at Atlanta. They are looking to get into more cities throughout the country since they have purchased more airplanes.
Another carrier to consider targeting is TWA, with their jet service. On the Trans World Express flights to St. Louis last month, they boarded nearly 7,000 passengers with their regionals; that’s pretty close to being able to operate jets in and out of a community. We have talked to TWA to try to convince them to supplement their Trans World Express service with a couple of jets per day. Hopefully they will take a hard look at that in the first quarter of 1996.
Another carrier we are impressed with (and I have had discussions with them) is Comair which operates as a Delta connection in and out of Cincinnati. Cincinnati is a very good hub. Delta operates over 300 daily flights out of Cincinnati including non-stop flights to five foreign destinations. Comair is currently running 50-passenger jets to cities like South Bend and Evansville, Indiana, and Kalamazoo, Michigan – similar in size to Peoria. I’m sure we will be making a presentation to Comair about establishing a connection to Peoria.
Will the population base here support such service?
The passenger base we are looking at now is approximately 1.2 million people. That includes areas close to the Quad Cities, Galesburg, Springfield, Decatur, Bloomington, and up toward LaSalle-Peru. Given that population area, I think we can sell our story to the airlines, convincing them there are enough people to draw from in order to fill airplanes up and make a profit.
But most of the cities you just mentioned have their own airports which are also trying to expand their passenger flight options. Can you imagine a scenario where these communities would give up their own expansion pursuits in favor of utilizing Peoria as a regional airport?
A “low-cost carrier” providing a low cost fare structure in and out of Peoria would be a reason for people to look to Peoria. Airports throughout the state – Champaign, Bloomington, Decatur, Springfield, and Peoria – are losing a lot of people to highways. Potential customers are getting on the highways to go to places like Midway Airport, St. Louis or Indianapolis to get good fares. You see it to a great degree with the leisure traveler because the leisure traveler can make a choice on travel dates, taking the drive time into consideration. Business travelers are starting to look that way too.
People are price-conscious. The new low-cost carriers are coming in with low price structures and they are putting people on these airplanes. Our job is to get low-cost carriers into this market. We have been working with our carriers. All the carriers we have today are tied into a major airline: Trans World Express is in with TWA, American Airlines owns American Eagle, United has a marketing agreement with United Express, and Northwest Airlink has a marketing agreement with Northwest. We struggle every day trying to get the air fare structure down to where people will use our facility versus getting on the highway to drive.
If we can get a low-cost carrier at our facility, we can attract those people. I’m sure other airports are looking for the same things we are in order to enhance service. All Central Illinois airports – Peoria, Quad Cities, Springfield, Bloomington, etc. – would love to have a low-cost carrier. Whoever gets it first is the one who is going to have people drive to their particular facility.
It seems the Greater Peoria Regional Airport might be faced with a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” scenario. Dependable, low-cost service could bring needed passengers, but the passengers are first needed to attract such service. Is that a fair assessment?
Exactly. When you start looking at the companies that own the jets, and the capital they have invested in them, you realize that you have to put a lot of people on these airplanes. And you have to charge a reasonable price to recoup that investment.
Our strategy right now if to show the airlines they can make a profit by operating service out of our community to the different hubs. I feel strongly that a profit can be made. The Quad Cities airport board almost 100,000 more passengers than Peoria, but you have to consider the service level in and out of the Quad Cities – six jet flights into Chicago and eight jet flights to St. Louis on TWA. Their population base, which includes areas to the west of the Quad Cities, allows them to support jet service. With our population base, I think we can also support jet service.
There has been talk about a regional airport in southern Tazewell County which could draw from Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Springfield, Decatur, and Champaign-Urbana – a market of some 1.5 million. Proponents say such an airport would give central Illinois passenger service equivalent to Omaha, Nebraska, or Buffalo, New York, for example. Is this a realistic scenario?
It might have been a realistic scenario back in the 1960s before so many airports made major infrastructure improvements. Millions of dollars have been put into existing airports. I’ve been telling people if we’re looking at a regional airport facility, let’s look at Peoria. Peoria has the highway access: I-74 from Champaign, through Bloomington, and four-lane access from Decatur through Bloomington. I think highway access is very important. That’s one of the reasons that Omaha, for example, is prospering as it is; it has two interstate highways that show up right at the airport.
We should be concentrating on this facility. We have room for expansion. We can expand our terminal concourse and add additional jetways. We have a 10,000-foot runway, and 8,000-foot runway, and a 24-hour control tower. Let’s look at Peoria as a regional airport.
A regional airport in Tazewell County would include tremendous costs: putting in runways, building taxiways, new terminal buildings, and air traffic procedures. Look at what’s happened in Denver where the costs of their airport doubled by the time it was built, going from an estimated $2.5 billion to $5 billion. Look at the difficulty encountered in the quest for a third Chicago airport. Shouldn’t we be concentrating on Peoria?
Do you think there will be a third airport near Chicago or is the idea really dead in the water?
The presidents of the 52 airlines currently operating in and out of Chicago are not supportive of another regional airport there. Basically the airlines have to pat the cost of the operation, and they are very reluctant to pay the costs of a new facility. Are you really going to get that much better service at a new regional facility? You can build it, but that doesn’t guarantee that people will come.
I think in order to build a third Chicago airport you have to have the airlines and the federal government behind you, and right now that just isn’t there. I still think more service can be brought into O’Hare with new technological changes. Over the last ten years there have not been any additional slots made available at O’Hare. The city of Chicago is in the process of moving both National Guard units out, which should free up land.
There should be a study undertaken to see if a regional commuter runway could be put in at O’Hare to facilitate regional carriers. My personal opinion is that there is still enough gate space for the regionals. Communities like Peoria throughout the Midwest need to have access to O’Hare. I think the answer is putting a regional airline runway in. Let’s concentrate on O’Hare.
Let’s talk about the proposed Peoria-to-Chicago highway. While highway access is important to an airport, this highway could be competition for the Peoria airport since it would make it easier for people to drive to a Chicago airport. How do you view the highway?
People in this area were working on a Kansas City-to-Chicago tollway long before I got here. I’ve always been concerned about a four-lane highway that would make easier accessibility to a major hub. At the same time, such a highway would give people in places like Macomb and Canton good access to our airport. It can work both ways.
I see a highway helping us out in the air freight industry. How much longer can air freight carriers continue to have access to O’Hare, as valuable as that airport is for overall air service today? With our 10,000-foot runway and the viability of an additional, parallel, 10,000-foot runway, is it time for those carriers to look at moving air freight in and out of our facility? Our goal for the next few years includes continuing the concentration on air freight growth. Any industry publications or projection will tell you that segment will probably be the fastest-growing segment of the air industry over the next few years.
The Greater Peoria Regional Airport has become one of this region’s most valuable economic development tools, witness the new operations of the Federal Reserve and U.S. Postal Service, based at the airport. Will operations locating on or near airport property be a trend?
That will be a priority for us. Our airport authority had the vision to protect access to our airplane runways – they bought adjoining land. In the meantime, an area on the south side of the airport along Smithville Road was developed for the air cargo facility. Back in January, 1994, my predecessor, Ron Burling worked to relocate Export Packaging from the Quad Cities to become the first anchor there. By November 1995, Export Packaging was housed in a 400,000-square-foot building – employing over 370 people as we speak today.
We now have the opportunity to market our air cargo facility. You would be amazed at how many calls we’ve had since the airport authority and area economic development professionals were able to attract the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Postal Service to the airport. The interest has been very high from other businesses and industries.
We have approximately 300 acres of land on the south side of Smithville Road we can develop. We are really concentrating on the area between the air freight facilities and Export Pack to enhance companies to come here.
The Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Council have really been great to work with, and this cooperative effort was clearly evident with the attraction of the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Postal Remote Encoding Center. Bill Browning and I meet on a monthly basis to strategize other opportunities to promote both the community and the airport.
Developers are eyeing the area surrounding the airport for restaurants, hotels, perhaps even retail, because of current growth. Can we expect such new developments next years?
We have had interest from developers in building a motel complex near the airport. There is no existing motel on the I-474 interchange. The airport authority owns some land just off the interstate and, over the next few months, we will be encouraging a developer to local a complex there. We are working with the Sky Harbor restaurant to try to relocate it to a new area alongside a proposed motel, as part of a package deal.
In addition to companies locating north and south of the airport, I can see land the airport owns north of the terminal being developed as an office complex.
Business travelers comprise much of the bread-and-butter business for airlines, yet business travelers pay premium fares and leisure travelers get the breaks. Is there something wrong with that scenario?
The airlines control that, and we do try to talk to the airlines about it. You’re right, the airlines do need to get their prices down for business travelers. The business traveler does pay the premium price.
Airlines have been trying to restructure their sir fares somewhat to help the business traveler, with three-day and seven-day advance purchases and efforts to eliminate the Saturday night overstay restrictions. You can often save $300-400 by leaving on a Saturday for a meeting on Monday.
I think it’s a sin to have Trans World Express charging over $400 round trip for a walk-up fare to St. Louis when I can buy a ticket from Peoria to London for $493 round trip. We have talked with the airlines and they say if people want to get to St. Louis by air they will pay the price. That’s the attitude of the airlines. It’s a tough situation trying to get the business fare restructured. Maybe a low-cost carrier could help.
It does concern me that business travelers are looking at Midway or St. Louis to take advantage of Southwest Airlines to get to Detroit or Cleveland. It’s hard to compete against a $49 air fare to Cleveland or a $19 air fare to Detroit.
Advances in technology and telecommunications threaten to reduce the need for personal air travel in today’s business world. Does that concern you?
These technological advances do concern us, but I think there will always be a need for travel. We just have to make sure we provide our passengers with good, reliable service.
The other side of the coin is that technology has helped our operation. With the Federal Reserve located on the second floor of the terminal building and the U.S. Postal Service located just west of the terminal building, we have fiber optics running to both facilities. The fact that fiber optics is available here at the airport is very significant when you look at what industries are needing today. It’s another tool for attracting businesses in the future.
Recently the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, David Hinson, was in town. In my whole aviation career, I had never m et the administrator of the F.A.A. He made it a point to come to Peoria to do a ribbon-cutting for the new Instrument Landing System on Runway Four. That was a $1.7 million project for which the government supplied money, with the help of Congressman Ray LaHood, to make sure Peoria stays in the forefront with technology. It was a big deal to get this instrument landing system put in because it can be upgraded to get airplanes into the facility in low-visibility weather.
What do you see as the biggest concern of business air travelers?
Air fares are important, but I think the number one concern of business travelers is the reliability issue. When business travelers get to the airport, they need to be guaranteed their flight is going to leave. There are sometimes uncontrollable circumstances. If the fog rolls in, the planes can’t get in. I am working very hard on making sure our existing carriers provide the best possible, reliable service. All it takes is one time; if a business person has a bad experience, we may not get them back. The biggest concern passengers have in Peoria right now is the reliability issue, and it has been bad.
The airline industry has been in turmoil for several years. What do you think the next few years will bring?
I see the carriers concentrating on the growth of the regional airline industry. It has been growing by leaps and bounds in order to feed the major airlines at the hub cities.
I see the airlines concentrating on airplanes like 50-passenged regional jets to feed these hubs, bringing service further out from the hubs. For example, right now it would be very hard to run prop-jets like an ATR-42 or an ATR-72 from Peoria to Atlanta or Dallas. But a 50-passenger regional jet provides the possibilities of Peoria-Dallas, Peoria-Atlanta, Peoria-Pittsburgh or Peoria-Washington, D.C. Right now Comair, the Delta connection, is running a 50-passenger jet to Cincinnati from Minneapolis, Tulsa and Omaha. I see carriers concentrating on regional partners. The development of the 50-passenger regional jet is good news for Peoria; Peoria will be a marketplace for that service.
In the next five years it will be interesting to watch how the major carriers play into the regional airline industry to feed the hubs. I was in a meeting not long ago with American Airlines officials, and they told me right up front that American Eagle is very important to American at Chicago, and that Peoria is a profitable station for them. If it is profitable, we have to make sure we are on the list when American goes out and buys these regional jets.
Right now it’s very interesting to watch American and United pursuing U.S. Air. How much consolidation will occur? Will Northwest and Continental merge? Will Delta merge with another carrier? It could happen in the near future.
The airline industry changes on a daily basis. Trying to predict what’s going to happen five or ten years out is almost impossible. We have to make sure we place ourselves in a position where we are a marketable city for additional air service. Our job is to try to provide reliable and convenient service with a competitive air fare structure for our passengers.
What message would you like to give the Peoria business community regarding the airport?
The business community should be aware that the airport authority is working harder than ever to provide the best possible air service and infrastructure improvements to make sure we are at the forefront. We are going to be working harder than ever to encourage carriers to come to Peoria. IBI