ITHACA, NY – Due to national trends in the airline industry, the Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport could face a troubled future.

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During the Tompkins Economic Summit last week, Tompkins County Area Development President Michael Stamm spoke about the issue, explaining that major airline companies have been gradually moving away from 37-seat turboprop planes and 50-seat regional airliners in favor of larger planes that seat 75 people or more.

Airport Manager Mike Hall explained the simple economics of the issue: “You can imagine it’s more interesting for [airline companies] to have two pilots with 400 passengers on a big airliner that flies for six hours with one takeoff and one landing than it is to have two pilots and 40 passengers that flies for an hour with one takeoff.”

A 2014 New York Times report that examined this trend explains that international, long-haul service is the most efficient and profitable for the airline companies, especially given a hike in jetfuel prices, which has precipitated the shift. An MIT study cited in the article showed that, from 2005 to 2012, small airports lost flights more than twice as fast the 29 largest hub airports in the US.

“We’re currently seat-limited in Ithaca. We could easily fly tens of thousands more passengers if we had the seat availability, but we don’t have the seat availability because the airlines don’t have the pilots or the airplanes. Both of those factors are becoming really significant,” Hall said.

This is especially troubling for Tompkins because of it’s “centrally isolated” status — with no major interstate routes running through it, Hall says that Tompkins must rely on its airport more than most cities.

However, Tompkins does have major strengths that other similarly-sized cities do not.

“The one thing that distinguishes us from many other airports is that we have a lot of downstream travel,” said Hall. “People don’t leave Ithaca to go to the first stop. They leave Ithaca to go to a hub to go on to Shanghai… we have a very international community in Ithaca, to a greater degree than many other cities our size.”

The leverage that the Tompkins-Ithaca Regional Airport has here is that the big airlines want to secure passengers for these longer international flights. If they don’t offer service from Ithaca, they risk losing potential passengers.

Another challenge that Stamm expressed during the Economic Summit and Hall echoed is that Ithaca’s position in the Northeast Corridor. Hub airports in the area, such as those in New York, Philadelphia and Newark, have both heavy air traffic and frequent bad weather.

Hall says that one of the goals going forward is to seek greater connectivity between Ithaca and other major hub airports across the country.

How to keep Ithaca flying

Some attendees at the economic summit questioned how they could help support and improve the local air service. One attendee who spoke up said that he was part of a local tech startup that sent out salespeople regularly and said that the airport experience was often “painful.”

Stamm explained it as a “chicken and egg,” and “use it or lose it” type of situation — that is, despite the problems, the reality of the situation is that if people stop flying out of Ithaca, the situation is likely to get worse. The airlines might perceive a reduce demand and pull even more flights, resulting in even worse service, and so on.

Hall pointed out that there are a lot of advantages to sticking with a local airport where possible. Cancellations and delays can happen anywhere, but if your airport is 15 minutes away it can be a lot less stressful to deal with than if you’re taking off from Syracuse or Rochester.

He added that the Tompkins-Ithaca Airport advocates for its passengers when there’s a conflict with the larger airlines, and may be able to do more than an individual passenger can.

“We’re trying to make it a very pleasant experience for the local traveling public, because we know, I know, the farther you have to drive to an airport the more hung out you are,” Hall said.

In an interesting bit of trivia, it appears that the challenges facing the airport might have been partially engineered by a local. Hall said that the shift toward maximum efficiency and profitability in the airlines could be traced back to late Cornell professor Alfred Kahn.

Kahn was an expert in regulation and deregulation, and became known as the “The Father of Airline Deregulation,” according to a Time Magazine article. Kahn is credited with paving the way for low-cost airlines like Southwest and JetBlue.

However, Hall argued that it also created a situation where profit and efficiency became the only considerations, which has led to the current troubles facing small airports nationwide.

(Featured photo courtesy of Jason O’Halloran on Flickr)

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.