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Peoria International Airport rebounds from pandemic and prepares for control tower construction

Gene Olson, Director of Airport for the Peoria Metropolitan Airport Authority, stops by the WCBU offices for an update on new projects and pandemic recovery.
Collin Schopp
Gene Olson, Director of Airport for the Peoria Metropolitan Airport Authority, stops by the WCBU offices for an update on new projects and pandemic recovery.

The General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport is almost finished rebounding from the pandemic. Director of Airports Gene Olson says passenger counts in April were “pretty much normal” and a number of projects are moving along.

According to Olson, just over 52,000 passengers passed through the airport in April, about a seven percent increase from last year. March saw a 20% increase over last year, boosted by spring break travel.

“Now, we’re still not at the pre-COVID levels,” said Olson. “In 2019, we saw several months during the year where we were over 60,000 passengers and we’re not up in that area yet.”

Olson says business travel has never really returned to pre-pandemic levels, as companies continue to embrace virtual communication.

“You can kind of judge by your own behavior, I mean, how many Zoom calls and Microsoft Teams meetings have you been on lately?” Olson said.

As traveler numbers rise, we’re also getting closer to a new control tower rising above the Peoria International Airport. The airport authority selected the site for the new tower in 2012, with design starting in 2013 and wrapping by about 2015. Olson says documents were finalized in 2017.

“Then, if you remember what was going on in the federal government at that time, we were hitting the sequestration periods,” said Olson. “So there was no money for construction. So that dried up and we’ve been working for five years to try and find a funding source.”

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill opened up the opportunities for funding that Olson and the airport authority were waiting for. But five years of developing FAA and building code requirements have to be factored into the original designs first.

“So what we're doing right now is going back with the architect,” said Olson. “And redoing some of the design to incorporate things that have changed.”

For example, one of those changes is an elevator with the ability to move a hospital gurney in and out in case of a medical emergency. Olson says they received the final list of FAA requirements this week and the design process should take about six to eight weeks for new finalized documents. Then the project will go out for bidding.

“That'll put us pretty close to the fall. And you don't want to dig a hole in Illinois in the fall, because it's gonna fill up with mud,” said Olson. “So we were probably looking at springtime to start construction.”

Other upcoming projects at the airport include the rehabilitation of about a mile of pavement on Runway 422 and an update to taxiway alpha. Olson calls taxiway alpha “probably the worst pavement on the airport.” Additionally, an expansion on the west side of the airline terminal apron is almost finished.

“This project was designed to add pavement so we can spread the jet bridges that we have, spread them out a little further,” said Olson. “So that we can get airplanes with bigger wingspan, because we're starting to see a phase out of the 50 seat regional jet, and they're being replaced by 76 seat jets, usually at a lower frequency.”

The same number of seats leave the airport each day, but less individual planes due to these larger jets. Due to this shift, United Airlines is likely to stay at its new home at gate six, with Allegiant Airlines returning from gate eight to gate ten at the end of the project.

The airport authority recently approved a smaller project: the installation of Flock license plate reader cameras in the airport’s parking lots. The cameras are meant as a deterrent, following a run of car thefts and vehicle break-ins at the airport.

“The cameras are in place and are operating and I'm looking around for some wood to knock because we've not seen a car theft since those cameras went in.” said Olson.

Olson says two types of theft primarily drove the concern: cars that had been rented illegally with a fake ID or false credit card and cars left unlocked with the keys inside. The airport’s cameras are managed by the Peoria County Sheriff’s Office, which will retrieve information from Flock in the event of a crime.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.