ITHACA, N.Y.—County officials are hoping a business consultant can help return airline service to pre-pandemic levels at the beleaguered Ithaca Tompkins International Airport (ITH). 

On Thursday, the Tompkins County Legislature’s Facilities and Infrastructure Committee unanimously approved a $156,700 contract with Connecticut-based QED Airport Aviation Consultants to develop a plan needed for Ithaca Tompkins International to become a “self-sustaining airport” financially.

The airport had eight daily flights with a total of 400 seats in 2019. Now, it’s down to four daily flights and a total of 252 daily seats. These figures were first presented at a town hall on the airport’s status in March, but they remain accurate according to ITH director Roxane Noble.

As the Ithaca Tompkins International has struggled to rebound from the pandemic, the county legislature has stepped in with cash infusions to keep the airport afloat. 

The legislature approved about $2.7 million in funding in its 2023 budget to be distributed over the course of three years, with the last infusion coming in 2025. The funds for the consulting contract were also approved in the county’s 2023 budget.

The costs the county is taking on to help the airport reach financial stability are accumulating. In addition to plugging budget gaps, the county is also caught holding the bag on servicing the airport’s debt. 

Ithaca Tompkins International Airport underwent a $24 million redevelopment project completed in 2019 that expanded its total gates to six. Tompkins County Administrator Lisa Holmes’ recommended budget for 2024 stated “it’s expected” that the county will need to cover the annual debt service of $681,959 for the airport’s terminal expansion project until service fully recovers. 

Noble told The Ithaca Voice that the more seats the airport can add, the better the pricing will become on its flights. She said improving fare price and flight frequency are the two main obstacles for the airport to become more competitive in the local market. 

A one-way ticket with the airline Delta from Ithaca Tompkins International to John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport in New York City this Saturday is going for as low as $329 on the booking service Skyscanner. At Syracuse International Airport — which has 20 gates — a flight with Delta to JFK is going for as low as $149. Booked out six months from now, Skyscanner shows a one-way flight from Ithaca to JFK going for as low as $174, and $104 from Syracuse.

Noble said the airport is ready for airlines to add more trips. For the last month and half, she said all of the airport’s flights have been “almost full.

“We’re between 85% and 95% load factor most days,” Noble said. And it may be soon that the airport is able to expand its number of flights. 

Ithaca Tompkins International received a $750,000 grant earlier this month through the U.S. Department of Transportation to support its efforts to attract new flights, particularly one to Washington, D.C. It is a plan Noble said her team and her are still putting together and in early meetings about. 

“Give us the seats, and we’ll fill them,” Noble said. 

She said the consulting services will provide the airport with a review of its existing air services, identify additional funding opportunities, and result in a recovery plan and roadmap for the future.

QED Airport Aviation Consultants was chosen from four companies that submitted bids in response to the county’s request for proposals, according to the legislature’s resolution. QED Airport Aviation Consultants will coordinate two sub-consultants: BFJ Planning and Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting. 

Although the funds for the consultant services were approved in the 2023 budget, the final step before the contract is rubber-stamped will be a vote from the full county legislature, which is scheduled to meet next Nov. 8.

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn