July 9, 2008

Continental Airlines Begins Flight Service to Ithaca

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Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport made a surprising announcement last week that it would expand service with the addition of Continental Airlines flights. This comes in the midst of service cutbacks across the country as airlines struggle to deal with skyrocketing fuel costs.

Larry Baum, President of the Ithaca Air Service Board, announced during a July 1 meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature that the airport would welcome back Continental this October. Continental, which left the airport in 1996 due to inadequate demand, plans to offer four daily non-stop flights from Ithaca to its hub, Newark Liberty Airport.

Baum also said that, beginning in August, Northwest Airlines’ morning flight from Ithaca to Detroit will be upgraded to a larger plane.

Ithaca Airport Manager Bob Nicholas noted that, via Newark, passengers will have access to “Continental’s substantial network of domestic and international flights.”

Nicholas believes that the addition of Continental, which will bring the Airport’s total number of airlines to three, will have a positive effect on ticket prices.

“Any time you’ve got increased competition, prices tend to lower,” he said. “I think that will definitely benefit the area’s student population and encourage them to make greater use of this airport.”

Nicholas explained that the trend-breaking service increase was made possible by the region’s many international travelers.

“As domestic flight pricing becomes more and more competitive, airlines like Continental are giving increased attention to the international sector,” he said. “Continental’s decision to return to Ithaca is definitely related to the area’s diverse student body.”

Baum said that Continental’s start-up pricing was likely to be very competitive, though there is some doubt as to whether the airline will be able to maintain low prices.

“Fuel is currently the largest cost faced by airlines,” he said, “and as the price of fuel continues to rise, I think that ticket prices are likely to do the same.”

Baum informed the County Legislature last week that approximately half of Tompkins County fliers depart from Ithaca, but many Cornell students choose to travel using other airports.

Gwen Waichman ’11, who flew from Ithaca to New York City this passed spring, said that her experience convinced her not to use the local airport again.

“The ticket prices were very high and the personnel at the airport were inefficient,” she said. “I’ve heard other stories about delays and high prices from friends and I wouldn’t use the local airport again except as a last resort.”

Terry Moynihan ’11, who has flown between Ithaca and Minneapolis multiple times, offered a more positive recollection.

“My flights have gone smoothly, without delays or long layovers. This small airport seems to be pretty well-run,” he said.

Online ticket search engines make it clear, however, that there are significant discrepancies between ticket prices out of Ithaca and ticket prices out of competitor airports in Syracuse and Rochester.

The lowest listed roundtrip weekend ticket from Ithaca to New York City for the month of August, for example, is around $380, whereas Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport lists tickets for the same weekend at about $220, according to each airport’s respective website. Similarly, roundtrip weekend flights from Ithaca to Minneapolis for the month of August are currently listed at about $540 versus Hancock Airport’s $390.

Despite the challenge of maintaining competitive prices, Baum believes that many area residents will welcome the return of Continental.

“The return of Continental will lead to more choice and more availability for students and other travelers, and we [the Air Service Board] will certainly be working with Continental on this service to Newark,” he said.

David Moore, Regional Director for AAA, said that the airline’s return will help local travelers in a number of ways.

“Ithaca fliers will be able to avoid plane changes in New York or travel time to Syracuse,” he said. “The return of Continental will offer travelers access to an even more world-wide hub and will make the local airport more competitive with those of Syracuse and Rochester.”

Bob Nicholas noted that the success of the service expansions ultimately lies in the hands of the consumer rather than the airport or airlines.

“It’s a case of use it or lose it,” he said, “If students and other travelers out of Ithaca don’t take advantage of the new flights and prices, then the airlines won’t be able to maintain them for long.”