ITHACA, N.Y. –– Economically speaking, the COVID-19 pandemic walloped Ithaca and Tompkins County. However, some businesses and operation were harmed more than others. Kayak rentals? Off the charts. The Ithaca-Tompkins International Airport? Well, the impacts of COVID-19 weren’t something they’d want to brag about.
“2020 started on a real high point, with two months of record enplanements (airplane passengers). Then the wheels came off with the pandemic. Thanks to strong relationships with our airline partners and federal support, we were able to maintain commercial service. We had planes flying with just a couple of people on them, it was grim for a while there, but we’re extraordinarily appreciative that airlines maintained service with federal support. We’ll be back to full-service this year and two-thirds of the the number of seats in market,” said Airport Director Mike Hall.
Ostensibly, like most everything else this year, the airport and its staff are attempting to recover from COVID-19’s economic shellacking, which came hardly three months after the airport opened its $35 million expansion. It also comes with a heightened sensitivity when people are traveling through a metal tube filled with recirculated air for extended periods – which, as Hall hastens to point us, that air is cleaned and filtered in the airplane cabin.
“Service has been good throughout, we’re convenient, clean and connected. It was less crowded and we have the brand new terminal, and over time as mitigations became more about masking, we’re under federal rules and we will be wearing masks and socially distanced until September. It’s a point of some confusion right now, because people see opening up on the news, and that’s true, but it’s not true in commercial air transportation. We are masked and distanced and will continue to be masked and distanced for the foreseeable future. When you get on airplane with people in it from all over the country, you need to have that one standard. It’s a little like going to the doctor’s office, you have to be careful and hygienic. Assuming vaccination progress continues, we’ll be back to full service later in the year. We have a ways to go yet, but vaccines will help us get there,” said Hall.
As the general public continues to get vaccinated and the COVID case counts continue to fall, there have been signs of progress with the airport’s reopening efforts. With the return of United Airlines flights to Washington D.C. (Dulles) starting June 3, the airport will be back to its usual retinue of destinations alongside flights to the Detroit and Charlotte airport hubs. Hall noted that international travel is recovering more slowly, though in terms of direct international flights, Ithaca-Tompkins continues to receive its share of chartered planes from Canada (charter flights overall stayed strong even through the worst of the pandemic), and recently the airport received a flight inbound from London on Cornell business.
“We’re reopening what we have. Ithaca is a market size that will always go to a hub…those are the three we had going into the pandemic. They’re excellent connections to 750 other airports. The other remarkable thing is, we had only one flight cancellation in 2021 so far, our snow removal crews do an excellent job and we’re used as an alternate airport for places like Syracuse. In contrast, a few years ago, when we went to Newark and Philadelphia, we had a lot of cancellations, those are tough airports. We worked with the airlines to get reliable hubs so you could plan your flight out,” Hall said.
Another boost to the airport’s efforts to regain business is coming in the form of a pair of federal grants recently announced by the offices of U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand. A $402,777 grant will help cover the cost of repairing ans reconfiguring sections of the airplane taxiways, and a second $818,867 grant will be used to modify the snow removal equipment building and build a new aircraft rescue and firefighting building, which will replace the existing 40 year-old structure.
“A big part of airport maintenance and development from an infrastructure point of view is funded by the federal government. There’s a fairly comprehensive program that for example, the taxiways, they would do a third of the taxiway each year for three successive years so it’s all up to speed. This taxiways project involves a little bit more because the FAA has been concerned someone might wander onto a runway. That’s not as big of a concern here (at Ithaca-Tompkins), but if a pilot was in bad weather and might inadvertently taxi onto a runway, that’s a real safety hazard. We’re going to be relocating one of the access points to the runway so that if you’re coming off the ramp, you can’t go straight onto the taxiways by mistake. This is in addition to the periodic refurbishment, but it involves redesign and reconstruction. We’ll be a little bit safer, and have a slightly different taxiway configuration.
As for the fire station and snow removal equipment, we have a lot more equipment than we did 40 years ago. There are a number of things in need of improvement, and rather than add on another engine bay, we’re going to construct a whole new facility up to code, that’s located at a safer point on the airfield. The airplane ramp has grown over the years and surrounds the fire station, and that’s a potential conflict between an airplane and an emergency vehicle, so we’ll build the new station down by the fuel farm and the industrial support facilities at the northwest end of the airfield behind the sheriff’s building. That leaves the ramp free for aircraft, you don’t want to mix aircraft and vehicles any more than necessary.”
Unfortunately, for hose hoping to see a glimpse of what the new rescue station will look right, the design has been drafted yet. “The station design, first its conceptual, then design, then construction. We’re going to produce the rendering as part of the design phase. That first step, the siting, is getting in compliance with various federal regulations,” said Hall. The design would be created this later this year and submitted for critique by the FAA to make sure if doesn’t pose any problems, and then the station would begin construction probably in later 2022 or early 2023 if it follows a normal time-frame. Hall noted it wasn’t logisitically practical to roll the new rescue building into the airport expansion a couple of years ago, because they couldn’t afford to have so much under construction at once with major impacts to service and operations.
Looking ahead into the second half of the year and beyond, Hall is optimistic that the airport can help reopen Ithaca and Tompkins County to the rest of the world as it attempts to recover from COVID’s many harms. “The mantra at the airport is ‘we speak your language, we cook your food, you’re welcome here’. We’re an unusually diverse community, and we’re inclusive, That value of being globally connected and inclusive, and that’s more valuable even now as the world has been fractured in so many ways. The more we recover and connect with those global communities, the better off and more inclusive we’ll be here.”