Boris Tsang/Sun Photo Editor

Tompkins County Regional Airport serves the entire Ithaca area, with special importance to Cornell students from distant locales.

March 7, 2021

$3 Million Federal Funding Keeps Ithaca Airport Above Ground

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Ithaca Tompkins International Airport has relied on a $3 million federal contribution to continue serving local passengers, as airports worldwide face a 90 percent drop in worldwide airport revenues throughout the past year.

Despite its importance to the Cornell and Ithaca communities, the airport has struggled throughout the pandemic. “The federal relief money has been instrumental in keeping the doors open,” said airport manager Mike Hall ’68.

The airport received an initial sum of $1.7 million from the CARES Act in April 2020. After the Biden administration passed the COVID-19 Economic Relief Bill Jan. 14, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) negotiated for $36 million to support airports in upstate New York. The Ithaca airport received $1.7 million of those funds this past February.

Throughout 2019, the Ithaca airport conducted a variety of renovation projects, including constructing a new terminal and café. These improvements tightened the budget — the pandemic only worsened the problem. Airport traffic dropped by 95 percent in April 2020 as pandemic lockdowns took hold in the U.S, according to Hall.

“[The Ithaca airport] attains funding from a variety of contributors, Hall said. “The formula changes some from year to year, but pretty reliably, it’s 90 percent federal, five percent New York, and five percent local.”

The federal funding mainly supports airport infrastructure, including runways, taxiways and other operational costs. 

The Ithaca airport has also accumulated some savings over the past few years. Hall expressed confidence that the airport could continue to operate for several years in present circumstances.

“We’re holding the money in a savings account, so to speak, in case we need it for operations,” Hall said. “But our great hope is that the business will recover quickly, and we’ll be able to take the residual funds from the federal government and pay down debt.”

Unlike New York City, Chicago or Dallas airports, the Ithaca airport must work to explain the benefits of its location in order to contract with airlines and establish flight paths. Cornell’s decision to open in-person this year, according to Hall, helped the airport maintain partnerships throughout the pandemic.

Since spring 2020, the airport has decreased the number of flights and airlines it offers in response to the pandemic. Before the pandemic, the Ithaca airport offered three flights from three different airlines each day. Currently, passengers can book flights only with Delta or American Airlines, with each running one flight in, and one out of Ithaca every day. They plan to double these numbers in April.

United expressed tentative plans to reestablish flights to and from Washington, D.C., a major route for Cornell students, in June. However, Hall acknowledged the unreliability of recovery forecasts during the pandemic.

Hall emphasized the mutually beneficial relationship between the Ithaca airport and Cornell as both persevere through the pandemic. The airport, he said, helps universities have more students on campus from a variety of locations.

“It [diversity] strengthens their educational experience,” Hall said. “It gives them a broader market to draw from, and all of that is focused around the ability to get someplace.”

Likewise, Cornell benefits the airport. 

“Without Cornell University, there wouldn’t be an international airport,” he said. “There wouldn’t be enough demand.”.

Many Cornell students rely upon the airport to get to school every semester, especially during the pandemic. Natalie Sullivan Baker ’22 usually flies into Ithaca from the Detroit airport and expressed appreciation for its environment. 

“It’s just really homey, honestly; it feels much cozier than a bigger airport,” she said.

Some, like Charu Murugesan ’22, have enjoyed the fact that the pandemic has reduced Ithaca’s flight costs significantly. Murugesan previously flew from San Francisco to Syracuse, but since last March, she’s flown to Ithaca.

“Convenience wise, I would like to fly to Ithaca each time,” Murugesan said.

According to Aditya Venigalla ’23, air travel during COVID has largely felt the same as before. “Everybody wears masks and that kind of thing,” he said, “But I feel like COVID hasn’t really impacted the quality of air travel.”

Hall remained optimistic for the future of the airport with community, state and federal support, even as the pandemic strains airport finances. The Ithaca airport can hold out for several years, he said, and he’s confident that it will do well again as soon as the pandemic ends.

“There will be a quick recovery once things open up,” Hall said.