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Peoria Journal Star Article:

Regional facility ranked as busiest in central Illinois. By: Omar Sofradzija

PEORIA - A recovering economy that's spurring business travel and low fares that are luring vacationers to the skies are credited with making the Greater Peoria Regional Airport the most-used airport in central Illinois during the first quarter of this year.

Through the first three months of 2002, Peoria's airport served 101,784 passengers, an increase of about 4.4 percent from the same period last year.

Peoria's quarterly total topped that of Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington-Normal, last year's most-used airport. That airport served 100,614 people during the first quarter, a loss of nearly 16 percent from 2001.

While Peoria's lead over the Twin Cities was slight, it is a vast improvement from a ridership gap that widened to more than 90,000 passengers annually by the end of 2000.

Peoria interim airport director Mary DeVries said she's "extremely pleased" with the year-to-date numbers. "Our numbers just keep escalating."

In March alone, Peoria's airport served 38,689 people, a 9.1 percent improvement from one year earlier. The Twin Cities served 38,297 people last month, a 15.7 percent drop from the same month last year.

"Business travel is up. Leisure travel is up. Our fares are unbelievable," DeVries said. "I think the economy in Peoria is doing pretty well. The (low) fares are toward the leisure end," attracting vacationers.

In recent months, several airlines nationwide have repreatedly tried to raise fares, but have retreated either due to competitors sticking with cut-rate fares to maintain ridership or to traveler reluctance to fly unless they're given a discount.

Also, nearly all flights that were cut in Peoria late last year due to a post-Sept. 11 ridership slump have been restored.

Peoria's fastest-growing airline is Delta Air Lines comuter affiliate Delta Connection, operated by Atlantic Southeast Airlines. The carrier was in third place among five Peoria commuter carriers in market share last month.

In March, Delta carried 17.3 percent of Peoria air travelers, pushing it ahead of American Eagle (17.1 percent) and Northwest Airlink (13 percent).

Traditional market leader American Connection (formerly known as TW Express) led the pack with 29.4 percent, follwed by United Express (22.6 percent).

DeVries said Delta's thrice daily flights to Atlanta are currently operating about 80 percent capacity. Delta began operations here just eight months ago.

Bloomington's numbers are being dragged down by a loss of passengers on AirTran Airways, Delta's prime rival in Atlanta-bound flights and the Twin Cities' most-used airline.

Through the first three months of this year, AirTran saw Bloomington ridership drop by 12.5 percent compared to one year earlier.

Last week, AirTran revamped its fare structure on flights to Atlanta, which the airline expects will lead to cheapter business fares but fewer walk-up seats.