SAVOY, Ill. (WCIA) — The University of Illinois’ Willard Airport is set to see some changes in the next few years, with some of those changes already in place or coming very soon.

Larger jets, first class added to Dallas-Fort Worth service

For starters, the airport added larger jets in January. American Airlines’ regional affiliate Envoy will start flying to Dallas-Fort Worth with 76-seat planes, an upgrade from the 50-seat planes previously used on that route. In addition, the new planes will include 12 first class seats; it’s the first time American Airlines has offered a first class product in Champaign-Urbana. Larger overhead bins will also allow passengers to carry on their luggage instead of gate-checking it and waiting for it at baggage claim.

Willard officials said the shift to larger planes adds 25% more daily departing seats, which could help lower fares and ensure more travel options. This comes as more people are traveling through Willard than ever before. 91% of all seats flying out of Willard in the summer were full, one of the highest ratios of any airport in the Midwest.

If the Champaign-Urbana community fills the larger planes to Dallas-Fort Worth, American said it will consider using the larger planes for routes to Chicago O’Hare. Until then, American added a third flight to O’Hare to keep up with the holiday demand.

Willard eying new destinations, plans to use $850k for Washington, D.C. service

In addition to upgrading current service routes, officials at Willard are looking to expand their service to new destinations. Florida and Las Vegas are two potential destinations, but Willard has a plan in place for elsewhere: Washington, D.C. The airport received $850,000 of federal funding last year, funding they plan to use to start service to the nation’s capital.

Willard tenant Parkland College training new pilots

However, service to Washington is unlikely to begin in 2023 due to one critical challenge: a shortage of pilots. More than 4,000 pilots retired during the COVID-19 pandemic and there simply aren’t enough fully qualified pilots to replace them. Parkland College’s aviation program currently has 100 future aviators currently enrolled, but it will be several years before they are ready to fly passengers. Willard officials said service to Washington could begin in 2024.

TSA facility expansion, terminal upgrades coming in airport master plan

Changes are also coming to the airport facilities themselves as officials work with an engineering firm to complete the airport’s first master plan in 30 years. Chief among these improvements is to the passenger terminal building and its TSA facilities.

The master plan would expand and modernize the existing facility to meet future travel demands and improve passenger experience – that includes an additional baggage claim carousel and renovated restrooms. In addition, the terminal’s TSA facilities would be relocated and expanded to be brought up to standard; the current building is pre-9/11 and unable to accommodate the enhanced security requirements and space standards put in place in 2001 and 2002. This includes a larger passenger queue line and expanded baggage screening areas.

In addition to the terminal upgrades, the master plan will also bring the airport up to FAA taxiway design standards to improve airfield safety, new aircraft reuse and firefighting facilities and ensure cooperation between the airport and local communities regarding use of land both on and adjacent to airport property.

New fire truck arrives at Willard, first in 19 years

When the new firefighting station is built, it will be equipped with Willard’s first new fire truck in 19 years. The airport received the new truck – the Oshkosh Striker – in October, and it was paid for in full by the FAA. The truck is described as the “Porsche 959 of firetrucks,” and there will be two of them at Willard available 24 hours of every day of the year.