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Ithaca Week

    New Changes Taking Flight for Aviation in Ithaca

    New Service and potential growth opportunities are in the works at the Ithaca-Tompkins International Airport.

    (Photo: Mark Scaglione | Ithaca Week)

    Walking through the doors of the Ithaca-Tompkins International Airport, the bright terminal immediately catches your eye, drawing inspiration from the greater Ithaca community. The terminal may also be rather quiet, with a few cars dropping passengers off outside and a select number of daily flights departing and arriving into the main terminal every day.

    The scene is similar at airports in small cities across the country. Regional airports are struggling in some places, but in Ithaca, the quiet atmosphere of the terminal with small bursts of passenger activity is not the entire picture. In fact, the Ithaca-Tompkins International Airport is growing and making it more accessible to fly in and out of Tompkins County. Unlike many regional airports, Ithaca brings passengers into the region to support the local economy.

    This past month, budget carriers Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines announced plans to merge—creating the fifth largest airline in the United States. The merger is expected to close in the second half of 2022, pending a regulatory review process by federal regulators.

    The move has the potential to shakeup the American aviation industry. Spirit and Frontier could rival the Big Four (American, United, Delta, Southwest) and create new markets of ultra-low cost fares to underserved communities and small cities like Ithaca.

    The merger is an opportunity to provide low fares in a market like Ithaca, where legacy carriers (United, American, Delta) dominate the market. Spirit and Frontier have already identified Ithaca as a potential area for growth.

    Roxan Noble, Director of the Ithaca-Tompkins International Airport, said talks with Spirit Airlines are already underway.

    “We’ve reached out multiple times talking to Spirit Airlines and executives there,” Noble said. “Just letting them know that people in Ithaca would love a flight to Florida, if that’s the destination that they would take us, which it probably would be.”

    Service to Florida would naturally make sense for Ithaca with a Spirit/Frontier merger. According to Cirium, an aviation data provider, Orlando, Florida will become the new airline’s busiest airport if they are to merge. Ithaca currently has no commercial flights to the Sunshine state.

    A Frontier-Spirit Merger could mean new access to cities that have historically had limited service from legacy airlines. With the promise of more flights and lower fares, the merger would create a new aviation network in the Western Hemisphere (Photo: Frontier Airlines/Spirit Airlines)

    Noble also says the competition could complement the legacy carriers already servicing the Ithaca area.

    “I think people that fly the legacy carriers are probably going to continue to fly the legacy carriers,” she added, “It’s more competition, but it’s also a different destination. It’s a different market.”

    Aviation trends in the Ithaca area have historically catered to business travel, but a route to Florida could spark a heightened interest in leisure travel for passengers in the area.

    “We have families within Tompkins County that want to get away for a weekend that haven’t been able to travel in the last couple of years,” Noble said. “But to be able to do it affordably on a low cost carrier and to get to the destination and still have money to be able to enjoy themselves.”

    As for a timeline of when new flight options related to a Spirit/Frontier merger could become more concrete, Erik Hofmeyer, Director of Communications at Spirit Airlines noted that it’s premature to discuss future flight options and the two airlines will continue to operate independently until the regulatory review process is complete.

    Despite these opportunities for growth, Ithaca’s aviation market is still feeling the impact from the COVID-19 pandemic. The aviation industry was in limbo for much of the past few years with the pandemic shuttering flights around the world. Air travel in Ithaca was no different and experienced a downturn. Now, as flight schedules are on their way to returning towards near pre-pandemic levels, effects are still looming.

    The Departures and Arrivals board shows daily flights scheduled to leave and fly into the Ithaca-Tompkins International Airport. Some of these routes will be altered in the near future to adjust for pilot shortages and meeting better service for passengers. (Photo: Mark Scaglione | Ithaca Week)

    United Airlines will be altering their service in Ithaca, changing daily service to Dulles-Washington (IAD) to Newark (EWR). According to Noble, the move will begin in March on a temporary basis— lasting until the end of this year into early 2023.

    “The issue came from a pilot shortage, and the carriers that were flying for us under United into Dulles,” Noble said. “There were 12 cities that United pulled service from at Dulles and only four were able to keep or regain new service, and Ithaca was one of those.”

    Noble also noted that United’s new service to Newark will increase access to the New York City Metropolitan area. As for American Airlines, they announced a permanent switch in service from Charlotte Douglas (CLT) to Philadelphia (PHL).

    “We’ve talked a lot with American Airlines and we’ve had meetings with them,” Noble said. “It looks like most of our passengers that use the American service really have great connections out of Philadelphia.”

    Beyond the immediate changes, Noble said the airport was well positioned for growth after a nearly $35 million expansion at the end of 2019. In addition to doubling the size of the terminal, the airport’s enplanements— meaning how many aircrafts are boarded— were at record highs. Since the pandemic nearly halted air travel, the airport has focused on rebounding.

    The ticketing area of the Ithaca-Tompkins International Airport. Right now, three airlines—American, Delta and United offer commercial service and daily routes to regional hubs (Photo: Mark Scaglione | Ithaca Week).

    “Over the last few months, we’ve still had a hit with service with Omicron and people not being able to fly or reluctant to fly,” Noble said.

    As restrictions ease and COVID-19 numbers are decreasing across the country, Noble said the airport is looking to return to pre-pandemic levels. “We’re working closely with our airline partners, building relationships, working to get the service back to what it was pre-pandemic, and hoping to gain additional service and new service.”

    And with the peak tourism season soon to pick up in Ithaca, the continued growth of the airport could be important for access to the region.

    Ithaca area resident Jess Shapiro is pleased with growth at the airport and how it can benefit the local community.

    “I think it would be a huge benefit for tourism but also for the residents, the people who live here,” Shapiro said.

    Noble also believes the airport plays an integral role in bringing people into the region. “It’s not only people traveling from Ithaca, but we’re trying to work to get people to travel into Tompkins County.”

    Jess Shapiro added, “It’s all about accessibility, right. If it’s easier for you to get here, or to go somewhere and come back, then you’re going to be happier living here and have a higher quality of life.”

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