TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The Ithaca Tompkins International Airport (ITH) received tens of millions in funding for a terminal renovation and the addition of a U.S. Customs facility meant to foster international travelers and greatly boost overall usage of the airport.

That project was first announced to much fanfare in 2018, with a groundbreaking attended by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and dozens of officials from around Tompkins County. It was completed in 2019, but the potential fruits of that addition have barely been seen since—thanks, in large part, to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We just haven’t regained our pre-pandemic commercial service,” Noble said. While major hubs may have the financial margins to absorb the ridership hit for the time being, regional airports are struggling around the country, she said. “Until we can get the flights back and get fully recovered, we’re going to need some help.”

Now the Tompkins County Legislature has proposed the inclusion of millions in extra funding (about $2.7 million to be exact, over the next three years) in its 2023 budget to help the airport keep its head above water and hopefully serve as a stopgap until ridership returns to its pre-pandemic heights.

Though travel restrictions have gradually receded, passengers have still not returned en masse. According to Tompkins County Administrator Lisa Holmes’ budget presentation, ridership only returned to about half of its 2019 levels in 2021, after an obviously steep decline in 2020 during the early stages of the pandemic.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, I envision that a recovery period will take more than a year and beyond that, there are many factors like the economy, the price of fuel, the pilot shortage, that are beyond our local control,” Holmes said. “We’ll do everything that’s within our control to right the situation as best we can, knowing that there are many factors that are larger than us on the local level. It’s probably at least going to be three years to stabilize and start to regain some ground.”

Some of the current situation can still be attributed to general COVID anxiety about flying, Noble said, but there’s also a likely sustained decrease in business travel with the rapid proliferation of virtual attendance to meetings and conferences available now. With that in mind, Noble said airport officials are eyeing leisure travel sites to add to Ithaca, on low-cost carriers such as Frontier, Spirit Airlines, and others.

The discontinuation of American Airlines from ITH earlier this year came as a jarring surprise, with the county’s shock signaled by a joint statement released by County Administrator Lisa Holmes and Airport Director Roxan Noble. That left just Delta Airlines and United Airlines as the only two carriers still regularly servicing commercial flights to the airport, flying to Detroit and Newark, New Jersey.

At the time, Noble spoke of American’s decision as an opportunity to explore new carriers and route options, but those have not yet materialized. Again, the remnants of the COVID-19 pandemic are impacting that, as the pilot pipeline was undercut by the decision of major airline carriers to offer retirement packages to their pilots to save money, then promoting pilots from regional carriers. But those regional carriers weren’t able to keep hiring replacements with the new demand for their personnel. American Airlines was running their Ithaca routes through a regional carrier, Piedmont, and cited the pilot shortage as the primary factor in them pulling out of the area.

“We’re continuously talking to our current airlines, United and Delta, we’re reaching out to additional airlines with a low-cost carrier, just trying to get information out there,” Noble said. “A lot of airlines are still struggling as well with pilot shortages, fuel costs, so it’s just about trying to be prepared, be ready for when they’re back fully staffed with pilots and letting them know that Ithaca’s ready.”

Noble said she would like to target a route to the south, mentioning Florida as a possibility, somewhere that could attract not only people to Tompkins County for summer tourism but could also provide local residents with an easily accessible route to a warmer climate during the brutal winter months.

There’s obviously a general pressure to get the airport back working again, and one would think that because of the large investment that it received just a few years ago, that urgency would be amplified. Noble pushed back on that notion, though.

“There were a lot of things that were done in the expansion that needed to be done, it wasn’t just how it looks,” Noble said. “It went to geothermal heating, security upgrades, stuff within the terminal. […] I wouldn’t say that investment is ‘hanging over it,’ I just think that we have this beautiful facility, it’s functional and operational, having the airport here is a crucial economic driver to Tompkins County.”

Holmes echoed that sentiment.

“Prior to the pandemic, the airport was at an all-time high in terms of emplacement numbers, the number of flights,” Holmes said. “It was fully self-sustaining. The terminal expansion was a great opportunity for us.”

To assist, Holmes spoke of a strategic recovery plan specifically for the airport, to “make sure no stone is left unturned in terms of how to best recover from this.” Revenue generation and cost-cutting will be the primary focus, with a Request for Proposals soon to be published for consultants to apply to work on the project. Holmes said there are not plans to start cutting jobs from the airport “at this time,” though there are not many county workers at the airport as airlines often have their own employees that help at airports.

Despite the sustained ridership downturn continuing even as the rest of the country seems intent on leaving the pandemic behind (for better or worse), Noble remained optimistic that the airport’s efforts, along with the additional investment at the county level, will pay off.

“We have the market, we have the area, we have the economy, people want to fly,” Noble insisted. “We’ve been working with our educational institutions, coordinating with them about what they’re looking for and hoping for. Working with the community, local businesses, working closely with the county legislature and keeping them in the loop. […] Just looking at all opportunities.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com