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Airline mergers cause turbulence at Southern Tier airports

The birthplace of the  Boeing 747 aircraft is now struggling to get flights off the ground.
The birthplace of the Boeing 747 aircraft is now struggling to get flights off the ground.

The Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport is working to increase traffic and fill financial holes following a steep decline in passengers over the past three years.

While 2011 proved to be a historic year for the airport with a record-setting 121,733 outbound passengers, ridership has since plummeted. By 2013’s year-end, the number of passengers had dropped nearly 14 percent, according to statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration– a downward pace that has continued into 2014.

“The airport has cyclic traffic over the years,” said Mike Hall, the airport’s interim aviation director. “This reflects as much as anything the turbulence of the airline industry.”

While there is no clear consensus to explain the slump, Michael Malnoske, the general manager at Blue Line Aviation, LLC and longtime Elmira resident, said he suspects the drop in passengers stems from the recent merge of two major airline carriers.

 “A lot of this comes from the legacy merge we had recently between U.S. Airways and American Airlines,” said Malnoske. “This creates a lot of red tape for the regional carriers, which serve Ithaca and Elmira.”

 Hall also cited the merge as an example of turbulence for the airport and industry, which has seen massive deregulation as well as spending cuts in recent years.

 “The shock waves of (deregulation) are still being felt today,” Hall said. “It’s been a tough few years to get reliable service. We’re working really hard at Ithaca to turn it around. We recognize that where we are is not acceptable.”

 One way the Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport is seeing the effects of budget cuts is in the number of flight services it has to offer. Currently, the airport only offers nine daily commercial flight services to three major hubs: Detroit, Newark and Philadelphia. Hall said that the limited number of services might drive away some consumers looking for more flexibility. To further agitate the situation, Hall continued, the airport is still up against the obvious external challenges, including harsh weather and crowded airspace.

 Not all airports in the southern tier are suffering though. According to Elmira-Corning Regional Airport manager, Ann Crook, business is steadily increasing– up more than 20 percent through the same time period in 2013. Crook said the increase could be attributed to the boom in natural gas exploration in the region, as well as the airport’s easy accessibility and partnership with Allegiant Airlines.

 Allegiant has a different business model than most of the carriers, Crook explains. The Las Vegas-based carrier specializes in offering low-cost, direct flights from smaller cities to popular destinations, such as vacation hubs like Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.

 “The allegiant flights cater to people who are looking for direct service to Florida, for a good, low price,” Crook said. “This is now the airport to come to and has made us the airport of choice.”

 While the Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport has not landed a discount carrier, Hall believes the airport will soon rise back to its record high passenger levels. In preparation, the airport is currently rolling out an expansion plan, which includes nearly $20 million in infrastructure upgrades and will begin as early as the summer of 2015.

 Also securing the airport’s future, Hall said, is the high-demand by residents and international students for an easy in-and-out route to and from Ithaca–a community with no interstate highway or rail services. The airport, Hall said, has and will continue to offer a reliable connection to major cities, helping to maintain a local customer base, as well as the attention of major airlines.

 “Well, the airport is a very important part of economic development in Tompkins County,” Hall said. “The airport is really our portal to the world.”


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