DECATUR — Archer Daniels Midland Co. will pay up to $100,000 for Decatur Airport renovations to accommodate jet service through SkyWest Airlines, according to an agreement reached Wednesday, although Decatur Park District officials haven't defined the extent or cost of the work.
The park board agreed to enter into the agreement with ADM, which also guaranteed it would fill 5,000 seats each year for the next two years if SkyWest is selected as the airport's next commercial provider through the Essential Air Service program. The company lobbied last month for the board to recommend SkyWest to the Department of Transportation, which oversees the program and has not yet announced its decision.
"It's ultimately up to them," said Airport Director Tim Wright. "Right now, we're unable to speculate when they will make their decision by."
ADM has supported Utah-based SkyWest's bid since the board began considering Essential Air Service proposals in October. The board also received bids from the current provider, Air Choice One, and Massachusetts-based Cape Air, both of which would have provided flights to both St. Louis and Chicago. SkyWest would offer two flights daily to Chicago.
The board switched its recommendation, voting 3-2 for SkyWest on Nov. 15, after representatives from ADM, Decatur Memorial Hospital and other local businesses publicly expressed their preference for jet service and ADM's representative offered the incentives. Commissioner Chris Harrison changed his vote from the one he had taken on Nov. 3, when the board voted 3-2 in favor of Cape Air.
ADM's donation would pay to accommodate more passengers in the airport waiting area, which can seat 15 people comfortably, Wright said. SkyWest will provide a 50-seat, twin engine Canadair Regional Jet 200, much larger than the Air Choice One planes that seat nine passengers.
Wright said the airport has enough space to accommodate 50 people, but he did not know how much work would need to be done or how much it would cost. The park district will be responsible for expenses over $100,000.
Final plans will depend on regulations enforced by the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, he said.
"There are rules that have to be followed to ensure the safety of passengers," Wright said. "These agencies have been involved in the planning and the design aspects so far."
The contract will not take effect if another airline is chosen by the Department of Transportation, district Attorney Ed Flynn said. "We will not be in any obligation to (ADM), and they will not be in obligation to us," he said.
ADM Senior Vice President Michael D'Ambrose said last month that jet service would make it easier for the company to transport vendors, employees and other people to and from Chicago. Company spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said in an email on Wednesday that D'Ambrose and ADM had no further comments about the agreement or the district's recommendation of SkyWest.
Regarding the 5,000 guaranteed seats, Flynn said there are consequences in place if ADM fails to deliver those numbers during both years of the airport's contract with SkyWest. The company will have to pay a certain amount of money in damages if it doesn't, he said.
As an example, Flynn said ADM will have to pay $69,000 in damages if the company only fills 4,000 seats in a year. That number was calculated by multiplying the number of seats that weren't filled by ADM by the price of a $69 plane ticket from Decatur to Chicago.
The park district board hopes that ADM's guarantee of 5,000 in each of the next two years will help the airport reach its goal of 10,000 enplanements in a year, which would allow the district to receive federal money for infrastructure purposes. An enplanement represents when a passenger boards a flight that originates in Decatur.
"We don't care how (ADM) does it, but we just want them to do it," Board President Bob Brilley II said during the meeting.
This story has been updated to show the correct price of a plane ticket from Decatur to Chicago.