Unless we are traveling or picking up someone from the airport, most of us likely do not give much consideration to the role aviation plays in the ability of Southern Illinois to work and its impact on the regional economy — and it is a significant impact.

“I think it is a very exciting time for aviation in Southern Illinois,” said Doug Kimmel, airport director for Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois.

Kimmel and other aviation and economic development leaders in the region say the industry is in growth mode.

“We’ve seen our operations here — things like aircraft takeoffs and landings increase fourfold in the last year,” he said.

Much of the increase is because of the presence of Airgo, a Centralia-based company which offers aviation training. Kimmel says the company is helping Chinese flight students achieve their private pilot licenses and earn in-flight hours with the goal of becoming airline pilots in their home country.

Cape Air continues to offer passenger service from the airport located between Herrin and Marion to St. Louis International Airport at Lambert Field. He says Cape Air’s ridership is also on the upswing.

“I think we can attribute that to a new airfare structure they have,” he said. “They are using a tiered structure where the sooner you booker your flight, the cheaper your seat.”

He says the airline, which offers multiple flights to and from St. Louis daily, is a significant economic development tool.

“For us a region, passenger service is one more arrow in the quiver for economic development,” he said. “It’s part of our transportation infrastructure. Just like Interstate 57 or Amtrak, it’s a means of accessing Southern Illinois without having to drive. For leisure travelers, it is a convenience. But from a business and economic perspective, it opens our region up for immediate access, not only for our business people to get to other places, but for others to be able to come here.”

Gary Shafer, manager of the Southern Illinois Airport, located between Carbondale and Murphysboro, said the ability to get to and from the region is vital.

“Access is critically important to participate in national and international commerce,” he said. “Having the ability to go from one of these airports to anywhere in the world is so important.”

Shafer says the strength of aviation nationally comes from an increase in the number of people flying nationally as well as the increase in the use of private jets by business, and an increase in demand for commercial pilots and mechanics.

The need for additional pilots is of particular importance to Shafer and Southern Illinois Airport, which serves as the base for Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s aviation program. Annually, the program turns out dozens of pilots, airplane mechanics and other aviation professionals as one of the nation’s top aviation programs.

“The university is a strong and large tenant of the airport facility,” Shafer said. “It has been that way since 1960 and they have grown considerably since then. It has been and continues to be a great partnership.”

Carbondale Economic Development Director Steve Mitchell said the airport is an asset to the community and region.

“For the Southern Illinois Airport, the benefits are multi-faceted,” he said. “Not only do you have the great work of SIU aviation and the attention that particular program brings to SIU and the region, but having the airport here is hugely important during site selection and site visits for businesses considering Southern Illinois. I don’t think the region could really move forward without some sort of air transportation. It’s a major factor as companies look at our community and region for potential business placement.”

The airports are not just for coming and going, but also are actively pursuing businesses to locate on their property.

“One of the missions we have is to develop property,” Shafer said. “We have identified a number of parcels for both aviation and non-aviation development. We’ve ramped up our efforts to attract companies her that could take advantage of low-cost space, available talent in the aria and other resources that are available here with a relatively low cost of living. I expect we’ll continue to see that across the region.”

Shafer said several companies have located on airport property and that these businesses continue to make an impact on the local and regional economies.

“We are working closely with the Southern Illinois Airport Authority to place aviation-related businesses on their property,” said Cheryl Benn, executive director of Jackson Growth Alliance. "Any business that serves the aviation industry such as those that manufacture parts or do maintenance or those businesses which have a need for flying as part of their business operations are all a good fit.”

A 2011 State of Illinois economic impact study of every airport in the state showed that airports are key players in regional economy. The study showed that the Southern Illinois Airport had an economic impact of $68 million annually and that Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois had an impact of nearly $22 million.

Both airport directors think those numbers are lean.

“I’d guess it has gone up since then,” Kimmel said. “With the addition of Airgo, new buildings in the airport business park and more all have really generated a lot of activity for our communities. Plus, since we just finished the construction of the new airline terminal, that was a construction job of $15 million that generated a lot of economic development itself.”

Shafer added, “The study included the purchases by the businesses that are located here, payroll figures, supplies and inputs and the turn-over of those dollars. I think they study used a multiplier of 1.2, which I think is very conservative.”

Combined, the impact of just the two larger airports in the region approaches $100 million annually, without considering the numerous smaller airports across the region. Together, it means that aviation is a big part of the local economy, and leaders expect more.

“I think the years will show that it all plays together — the educational aspects, the business aspects and the access,” Kimmel says. “Route 13, I-57, Amtrak and the airports all combining as a sort of crossroads for transportation that can attract and accommodate business activity. I wholeheartedly see future growth. The sky is the limit for potential.”

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