flying into an economically turbulent free future
The “big, little airport” is a key economic driver in central Illinois
As the flying public regains confidence post-COVID, regional airports are gearing up to meet the demand. The Decatur Airport is no exception. With operational upgrades in the pipeline, this gem of an airport is doing what needs to be done to capture this increase in aviation traffic.
A notable public airport, comprising some 2,200 acres and classed by the Federal Aviation Administration as a regional general aviation facility (we have commercial air service), Decatur Airport is situated just five miles from downtown Decatur in the heart of Macon County, right bang in the center of Illinois.
Uniquely amongst American airports, it is owned by the Decatur Parks District. Airline service is subsidized by the federal government’s Essential Air Service program to the tune of some $2.6 million on an annual basis for this 11th-busiest commercial airport in the Land of Lincoln.
We recently spoke with Decatur Airport Director Tim Wright, and he told us more about this bustling hub of airborne activity.
“The Decatur Airport has the sixth-longest runway in the state of Illinois,” says Wright, citing three runways of 8,496, 6,799, and 5,298 feet in length, adding, “We’re able to accept the majority of the corporate and commercial aircraft that are built and serve across the United States.”
He adds that the airport currently enjoys United commercial service to and from Chicago’s famed O’Hare International Airport. With a population of over 70,000, Decatur boasts a large corporate community, with many Fortune 500 companies, such as ADM (or Archer-Daniels-Midland) and Caterpillar. Decatur’s facility is designated as a gateway airport because of all the corporate traffic from the local business community, as Wright notes.
He also spoke of the airport’s FBO, or fixed-based operator: Gaitros Aviation, LLC. Gaitros has the two biggest hangars for corporate jets.
Post-COVID, security at the airport has remained the same, as Wright reveals. Homeland Security facilitates the airport’s security program.
The COVID factor also ties in with the nationwide pilot shortage. Wright cites the airport has several CFI’s on the airport for flight instruction and not far away from Decatur is Parkland College Institute of Aviation in nearby Champaign. With its available scholarship programs and more, the institute is helping shore up this shortage crisis.
A welcoming facility
Wright notes that the Decatur Airport is a business-friendly and welcoming place. One such helpful feature is free vehicle parking available on a long-term basis.
“It’s one of the amenities we have that we feel the local community and those in central Illinois enjoy,” he says. “They enjoy how well-lit the parking lot is. You can drive to the airport, park for free, and catch your flight. Then, whenever you return, you can be in your car and then back home within about 15 minutes.”
He continues that the airport also features a monitored foreign trade zone. Plus, there’s storage available as well.
Wright spoke of infrastructural improvements. The new Snow Removal Equipment building and Aircraft Rescue Firefighting fire house of 28,600 square feet opened in August 2023. Old hangars have been removed, and there’s space for snow removal equipment. Further, regarding safety, the firehouse and maintenance facility are now housed under the same roof, replacing two separate such facilities, each 50 years old. This new and centralized location will be crucial in the event of any emergencies, says Wright.
“That’s key for us,” he adds. “Now we’ll have the room for the majority of the equipment. It’s got the latest and greatest whenever it comes to an emergency response. The doors, when the alert bell goes off, are automatically raised. That’s one less thing that the firemen have to worry about in a response type of situation.”
Further, the airport boasts another critical factor, as Wright points out. It is home to the United States Army Aviation Support Facility: the number-one such entity for the state of Illinois.
“We do have a military presence in regards to the army,” he reveals. “That is an aviation unit that flies helicopters from this airport.”
That military capability is an important component for any such airport, as Wright points out.
Further, he notes that the State of Illinois recently conducted an economic impact study for all the airports in the state. The report analyzed 85 public-use airport facilities: 81 public and four private airports.
Data were used to measure the economic impact at each airport, as well as each transportation department region and at the statewide level. Completed in 2020, the study talks about the myriad jobs related to local aviation and the enormous economic effects created by the Decatur Airport and its fellow facilities across the entire state.
According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, the state’s public-use airports generate some $95.5 billion in total annual economic activity, resulting in almost half a million jobs that can be traced to the aviation industry. The study also finds that aviation accounts for more than 4.2 percent of the gross domestic product for Illinois and almost five percent of the state’s jobs.
By demonstrating the aviation business’s significance to the state economy, the Department of transportation’s analysis reinforces the value of actively addressing airport and aviation system needs. The data not only bring home the importance of investing in the state’s aviation resources, but they also help Illinois airports to position themselves for incoming federal investment through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Wright continues that the airport is reducing its burden upon the electric grid. Within the next several years, it will see upgrades to all the airfield electrical lighting to LED (light-emitting diode) lighting. The electrical vault will be upgraded and have more safety features as well.
“Some great things are happening to better reduce our footprint,” Wright observes.
Further, with all that space, the airport is more than capable of taking on more business and expanding yet again with ever-widening boundaries. Plenty of room for that, says Wright. East of the airport is farmland, so constriction is not an issue. Plus, opportunities also abound for warehousing.
The Wright stuff
Wright also talked about how his professional career well and truly took flight. He reveals that he began at the airport back in 2004. He loves his job. You might say that it keeps him grounded.
“I started here as a firefighter for the airport and worked my way up through the organization,” he informs, “to where I was the operations manager.”
Nine years ago, he became the director. He loves serving Decatur in this capacity.
“We’re a strong community,” he declares, extolling a city full of kind people who “really help each other out. Being here for almost 20 years at the airport, I’ve seen growth. Never once did I think that we would be dealing with a pandemic and watch aviation pretty much be ground to a stop. Still, it’s been fascinating to see aviation return after COVID.
“It’s the big, little airport,” he jokingly adds of the facility. “We’re a big airport, but we still keep the hometown values. We enjoy being part of the community, both locally here in Decatur, and then also part of the aviation community. It’s my staff, and it’s the people that use aviation that motivate me. I’m proud of the airport. I’m proud of the history and the tradition that has taken place over the years here at the airport.”
What are Wright’s goals for the Decatur Airport as he looks ahead to the future? One is finding a big business that would like to be located in central Illinois at an airport and then begin that expansion to that growth on the north side of the airport for business development.
He also rectifies public misperceptions and fears of flying. Statistically speaking, as Wright points out, flight is still far and away the most secure way to travel.
“Aviation is still one of the safest modes of transportation in the world,” he says. “I think that people need to restore their faith in the aviation community. The key is—and I’ll use this for pilots as well and all the people who work at airports—we need to be mentors. We need to go out and help.”
He hopes more young people will choose aviation as a career.
“Do they want to go into aviation?” he rhetorically asks. “They need to encourage people to take back an interest in aviation. I agree with that 100 percent.”
“It starts with the youth, and it starts with igniting that passion, because there’s one thing we’ve learned, and I’m sure you would agree. That is, to work in aviation, you have to love it. Absolutely. You know, they say that if you love your job, you never work a day in your life. For the last 20 years, I guess I’ve never worked!”
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AT A GLANCE
What: a busy airport right bang in the middle of Illinois
Where: five miles east of Decatur, Ill.