Some may wonder how it can be called Peoria International Airport when it doesn’t have regularly scheduled or chartered international flights. It is designated a “port of entry” because the U.S. Customs and Border Protection maintains an office at the cargo facility on Smithville Road. Shipments from foreign origin can legally enter the country here, but the airport had enjoyed this status for more than two decades before inserting the word “international” into its title. The change, though, is more about marketing. “International” carries more stature than “regional.” 

There is far more to the General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport than a name. Greater Peoria’s commercial airport is not only a market for passengers and cargo, it is home to an Illinois Air National Guard wing, two Illinois Army National Guard groups, business aviation and private aircraft. It’s even played host to the President of the United States three times in little more than two years.

Passenger Count Breaks 30-Year Record
Five airlines offer flights to nine nonstop destinations. Allegiant Air flies limited frequency, low-cost nonstops to Las Vegas, Phoenix-Mesa and St. Petersburg/Clearwater. American Eagle links Peoria to American Airlines’ two largest hubs—Chicago O’Hare and Dallas/Fort Worth—with four and two daily nonstops, respectively. Atlantic Southeast Airlines dba Delta Connection offers two daily flights to Delta’s giant Atlanta hub. Northwest Airlines, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Delta, serves Peoria through two different regional affiliates: Mesaba Airlines, which offers three daily nonstops to Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Pinnacle Airlines, which offers two daily nonstops to Detroit. Last but not least is United Airlines’ United Express regional partner Skywest Airlines, which flies four nonstops daily to Chicago O’Hare and one daily to Denver. All of these flights are operated with jet equipment, save for Mesaba’s Minneapolis/St. Paul flights. The airport has gained much of this service since 2004, stimulating traffic to a record 564,988 passengers in 2008.

Air Cargo Reverses Course
Air cargo service is provided by two carriers: FedEx and United Parcel Service (UPS). FedEx links Peoria with its two largest U.S. hubs—Indianapolis and Memphis. The flight to the former originates at Des Moines and stops here four evenings a week. Flights operating between Memphis and Madison stop at Peoria in the evening and morning five days a week. The Boeing 727s used for these flights, painted in FedEx’s familiar white with purple and orange lettering and stripes, will be replaced by Boeing 757s in a few years.

A UPS Boeing 757 had been making one stop in Peoria on weeknights, enroute from Minneapolis/St. Paul to the carrier’s Louisville, Kentucky hub, but this changed on February 2nd when scheduled flights operating between the Louisville and Rockford hubs began stopping in Peoria, morning and evening. Not only did UPS double the number of flights here, it also began using larger aircraft. For the first time, Peoria has scheduled cargo flights operated with wide-body aircraft—Airbus A300s. These brown, gold and white-painted jets are needed to handle the increase in shipping volume brought about by the elimination of Decatur from UPS air routes. Although the carrier’s smaller Boeing 757s still stop here at times, the use of wide-bodies is a testament to the size of the local air cargo market.

Peoria is fortunate to have these two carriers, as recent consolidation and cutbacks by other dedicated cargo carriers have left it the only city in central Illinois still served by large cargo planes. Air cargo volume has been steadily declining since 2000, when 60 million pounds passed through the airport. Since then, with Airborne Express and DHL shifting air cargo operations to Bloomington-Normal; the effects of September 11th; the subsequent spike in fuel prices, which caused diversion of some freight to truck; and recession, that number has been cut by roughly half. It is expected that UPS’ recent expansion will reverse this trend.

General Aviation and Military Presence
The Peoria International Airport also maintains an important general aviation and military presence. Byerly Aviation’s Business Aviation Terminal, located just east of the existing passenger terminal, provides 24-hour service to private pilots, offering weather information, fuel and maintenance. Charter flights and used aircraft sales are also important areas of Byerly’s business.

The Illinois National Guard’s 182nd Airlift Wing currently operates eight Lockheed Martin C-130H Hercules from facilities located on the southwest side of the airport. These facilities have been in operation since 1990. Those along Airport Road previously used by the 182nd are now a base for the Army National Guard’s Company B 2-238 Aviation, which flies Boeing CH-47D “Chinook” helicopters, and the 1st Battalion, 106th Aviation, which flies Sikorsky UH-60 “Blackhawk” helicopters.

Planning for a Bright Future
The General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport possesses the longest runway in the State of Illinois, after those at Chicago-O’Hare International Airport. At 10,104 by 150 feet, it is capable of handling any aircraft in service today. The airport’s secondary runway is 8,003 feet in length. Recent taxiway reconfigurations have improved access to these runways from airline, air cargo, military and general aviation aprons.

Due to the age and deterioration of the existing terminal, which opened in 1959, airport officials announced on April 25, 2007 that a new terminal would be built. The $65-million, 125,000-square-foot facility will be located just to the west of the existing terminal and offer its ticketing and baggage claim areas on a single level. It will open with nine gates, but with room for expansion. Annual capacity of the new facility, scheduled for completion by late 2010, will be for two million passengers.

At the October 10, 2008 ceremony, the airport was renamed in honor of the late General Wayne A. Downing, a Peoria native. Then-Director of Airports Ken Spirito mentioned during the ceremony that the new terminal would help attract international charters. So maybe Peoria International Airport will land international flights after all? iBi