ITHACA, N.Y.—It’s no secret that the Ithaca Tompkins International Airport has struggled to rebound from COVID-19. While businesses, schools and more have all reopened and started to regain their footing following the heights of the pandemic, the airport’s comeback has been far more staggered, even forcing officials to request funding in the 2023 Tompkins County budget.
Airport officials have preached confidence in an eventual comeback, but have also acknowledged the downturn in ridership and the need for community support so the airport can return to its pre-pandemic functions. That was part of the message delivered during the airport town hall held last week meant to show the public the airport’s progress and map out the plan for making the facility self-sustaining again and even growing it beyond that.
Airport Director Roxan Noble, Deputy Director Josh Nalley and Empire Aviation’s Matthew Colbert, an economic development and airport consultant, all delivered a presentation to a group of about two dozen attendees in one of the airport’s conference rooms.
A 2022 community survey showed that Ithaca travelers prioritize low prices when choosing airports, along with how close they are to the airport they’re leaving from and the times of flights, with an emphasis being placed on morning flights.
Currently, there are four daily routes from the airport, two to JFK airport in New York City and two to Newark, New Jersey, both of which are hubs where people can catch a second plane to a far wider variety of destinations. The two routes to-and-from JFK airport only started during the first week of January, but airport officials said that addition has had a palpable impact in short order, even when counting for the loss of the Detroit route:
The presentation also made the point that with Delta servicing JFK from Ithaca, the loss of a Detroit route has been somewhat mitigated as JFK offers more routes to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham than Detroit’s airport (though fewer flights to Las Vegas, Orlando and Tampa Bay). It also pointed out that, for those closer to ITH than the Syracuse airport, time can be saved for those south and western flights even when a connecting flight is added in at JFK (and you can get a bit more sleep without the longer drive).
Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago represent the top three destinations among market travelers, Colbert said, and should be possible targets for routes, either direct or connected, in the future.
One of the tricks of operating a regional airport is a difficult chicken-or-egg scenario. More riders will make the market more attractive, and make more airlines willing to offer flights out of Ithaca; but more routes and travel options would attract more riders. So ITH is asking the public to make it a priority to fly out of the Ithaca airport. As noted in the presentation, 87 percent of local travels don’t start their trip from Ithaca—the vast majority start their travel from NYC, while others start from Philadelphia, Syracuse or others at similar rates as starting in Ithaca.
From the crowd, the central theme was that those in attendance, some of whom travel frequently, the primary barrier to using ITH for flights is the high cost of flights departing and arriving from there. That was addressed throughout, as it is a difficult problem to fix but some airports have orchestrated interesting ways to work around it.
For instance, low-cost airline Avello is being paid $1 million per year by a group of Binghamton businesses to service routes to and from the airport in Binghamton. However, Colbert noted that those flights have only been about 60 percent filled on average, making it easy to question how long that arrangement will continue.
Officials also laid out their two main priorities for 2023: focus on westbound and southbound service through adding additional flights, and offering lower fares by having more seats available on planes, and trying to attract a low-cost airline to the airport that would offer different routes at a discounted rate.
It will have to do so with the additional counterfactor of the ongoing pilot shortage, which has thrown a wrench into the entire airline industry and, Colbert mentioned, is projected to last until at least 2027 by industry officials.
Still, Noble and Nalley maintained their messaging that though the airport is currently experiencing some difficulties, positive news could be on the horizon as soon as later this year. When asked if American Airlines would ever return to Ithaca, after surprisingly cutting its service in July 2022, Noble and Nalley said patterns of routes change all the time but that they aren’t focused on any one possibility.
“The airport management is working every single day, I think we’re going to have some good news here by September or October,” Nalley said. “That’s the goal. Of course, you never know.”