TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. – They say travel is all about the journey, but if you’re looking to avoid flight delays when leaving Tompkins County, it really is about the destination.

With holiday travel around the corner and snowbirds preparing to fly south, Tompkins residents will be happy to know that flights in and out of the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport are generally reliable. To maximize chances of getting out of town without delay, though, travelers should choose their hub wisely.

The Ithaca Voice looked at data from Ithaca, Elmira and Syracuse airports to see how flight reliability compared across hubs with Ithaca connections in 2018 – Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark from January until October, and Washington Dulles since October. Across the three local airports, flights to and from Detroit performed best while flights through Newark performed worst. Nationally, on-time performance averages 79 percent; all analyzed routes other than Newark performed on par with or better than the national average.

Performance data for routes to and from Ithaca, Elmira and Syracuse were provided to The Ithaca Voice by Ken Hodges, a demographer by day and aviation tracker by night. Hodges calls himself an “at large” member of the Tompkins County Air Services Board, an advisory group that weighs in on ITH services and marketing. Hodges collected data from and other flight tracking sites, and has shared his findings with the ASB.

At larger airports, performance data are formally tracked, reported to the Department of Transportation, and made publicly available. Only airlines that carry more than 0.5 percent of national passengers, however, are required to report performance data to the DOT. While routes through ITH run under the umbrella of Delta, United and American Airlines, each company contracts a smaller carrier to transport their ITH traffic. Delta flights between ITH and Detroit are operated by SkyWest Airlines, United flights between ITH and Newark (previously) or Dulles (currently) are operated by CommutAir, and American flights between ITH and Philadelphia are operated by Piedmont Airlines. Only SkyWest is large enough to report data to the DOT, and their numbers are in line with those collected by Hodges.

Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport director Mike Hall said weather issues at hub airports are the greatest cause of delays for Ithaca flights, rather than local conditions. Philadelphia flights to and from ITH, for example, made it to their destination on the scheduled date about 92 percent of the time in 2018, with about an 85 percent on-time record. While the route’s performance is still better than the national average, Hall said those relatively low numbers are the result of conditions at PHL.

“Philadelphia has parallel runways,” he said, “and they’re too close together. Even with precision approaches, when the weather is bad you can’t operate both simultaneously.”

In that situation, airlines have to reduce traffic by canceling flights. Because aircraft flying into Ithaca carry few passengers, the route is high on the list of flights to cancel, Hall said.

Newark also has parallel runways that are subject to the same issue: from January until October, when the Ithaca-Newark route was cut, flights completed on the scheduled date about 90 percent of the time with an on-time rate of about 69 percent. Hall said that’s part of the reason United replaced the route with flights to Dulles.

Related: United Airlines to add third flight connecting Ithaca to Washington, D.C. 

The Dulles route only started operating in October, so it doesn’t have much of an established track record yet – and hasn’t weathered a winter. Preliminarily, though, its performance and sales have been strong enough that United announced plans to add a third daily flight in April.

While most variation in flight reliability out of the area has to do with the hub, performance may differ on any given day between ITH, ELM and SYR. Hall said ground conditions are rarely a problem at ITH, but low visibility can keep flights from landing at any of the region’s airports. In the past, pilots landing in low visibility conditions relied on ground instruments, which could be unreliable and could therefore cause delays. Now, according to Hall, virtually all commercial aircraft use on-board satellite navigation to land in low visibility conditions. Still, when the cloud ceiling is too low, airports are required to cancel or divert arriving flights.

“Our weather is pretty good and our surface conditions are always good,” Hall said. “As ugly as it seems sometimes out of Ithaca, it probably ain’t any prettier anywhere else (upstate) except by luck of the draw.”

Featured image: A ground crew prepares for deplaning at ITH. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at or 607-391-0328.