Roxan Noble has faced her fair share of challenges since she was appointed director of the Ithaca Tompkins County International Airport in November 2021. First were the challenges COVID has posed to the aviation industry, and now there’s the more recent announcement from American Airlines that it plans to discontinue service to the airport.
In addition to Ithaca, American Airlines will nix service to Dubuque, Iowa; Islip, New York; and Toledo, Ohio effective Sept. 7. American cited the ongoing pilot shortage as the reason for dropping these small airports from their coverage.
“We have 100 regional aircraft on the ground that we want to fly but can’t due to lack of regional pilots,” stated a spokesperson from American in an email. “Like many network carriers, we have reduced our regional flying in recent months in response to the regional pilot shortage.”
Though United and Delta are still serving Ithaca, both airlines are cutting some of their regional coverage elsewhere. United announced it will no longer serve Flagstaff, Arizona and Texarkana, Arkansas. Delta has been “strategically decreasing [their] flight schedule this summer,” according to its website, but this change, at the moment, seems temporary.
With American pulling out, ITH International will lose its nonstop daily flights to Philadelphia, as well as any of the connecting routes therein. But Noble still holds out hope that American might change their mind.
“We’re still trying to get American to reverse their decision. I’m still working hard on that. There are people in American Airlines looking at that, and reaching back out to me,” Noble said.
The airport is currently working on its budget, and according to Noble, the vacuum left by American would certainly negatively impact the airport’s financial situation, if no replacement is found. Though, at the moment, she’s holding out and still has American staying factored into the numbers.
“I’ve still planned on them being here currently is where I’m at right now,” Noble said. “We have our budget meetings coming up. So I don’t really have a definitive answer on what’s going to happen.”
Cornell University, Ithaca College, county legislators and local businesses have reportedly been voicing their support and advocating for the airport.
“My job, and I think the job of the county… is to make sure that the airlines don’t ever have an opportunity to forget about how unique our community is, how unique our airport is, and how we can be long-term partners in meeting their goals, which will be our goals, as well,” Cornell University’s Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina said.
Noble explained that there are also ongoing efforts to reach out to U.S. Senator Schumer (D-N.Y.), U.S. Senator Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and the Governor’s offices asking for any support they may be able to provide.
Noble also noted that she’s received a significant amount of support from customers, even from those who will need to change their travel plans due to the reshuffling of carriers.
“I was expecting a lot more angry customers. The phone calls I’ve received are extremely supportive of the airport of American Airlines, [of] Ithaca in general. They love to fly out of here, they want to continue to fly out of here. They asked what they can do to help,” Noble said.
According to Malina, this sort of collective support is vital to the future of the airport, whether or not American’s decision is permanent.
“If we are going to convince an airline to increase its service, if we are going to convince American to come back after September, it’s not going to be done by the county alone or by Cornell alone. It’s going to be in partnership,” Malina said.
The airport serves as an integral part of the local economy, generating $70 million in positive economic impact annually, directly employing around 175 people and supporting 510 jobs.
As a college town, Cornell and Ithaca College also have a vested interest in the airport, due to the services it provides to prospective and current students and faculty, as well as families, visitors and speakers. Malina acknowledged this value.
“Among the more critical elements of [Cornell’s] community relations work, [is] transportation. The airport and TCAT are probably two of the more important areas for us to be investing our time and effort,” Malina said. “Ithaca is an isolated place. It is not a place that is necessarily easy to get to.”
These aren’t the types of challenges Noble anticipated 28 years ago, when she started working for ITH International answering phones and processing accounts payable.
“I came here not really knowing much about airports. I’d flown once to Europe when I was in high school. And when I started here, it was just learning everything from the ground up. So I think that’s unique, because a lot of people may not come in as an entry-level [employee] and work their way up to director,” Noble said.
According to Noble, the best aspect of working for the Ithaca Airport is undoubtedly the people.
Looking to the future, Noble hopes that groups will help the airport continue its trajectory of recovering from the pandemic. The number of enplanements—or number of people boarding an aircraft—was 55,282 in 2021, which is more than 33,231 in 2020 but still around half of 2019’s 108,993 enplanements.
The airport is also working on two campaigns, “Why ITH” and “Are you wITH us?” to showcase the airport’s value. The “Why ITH” campaign will focus on pitching the airport to airlines/business, and “Are you wITH us?” will target prospective customers.
In addition to increasing service, another goal Noble has is attracting a low cost carrier, for example, “so families can afford to fly to Florida to take a vacation.”
She didn’t have a specific low cost carrier in mind, instead saying that she’s been reaching out to “any and all.”
“I’m also a person that’s not afraid to ask questions. I figure if you don’t ask, you don’t know,” Noble said.
How the airport will evolve in the future is still uncertain, but the message from the community is clear: Investing in the airport should be a priority.
“Getting the airlines to make a decision is just the first step, then we need to back that up with a clear demonstration that we’re using the airport,” Malina said. “We don’t want to do all this work and to have these great options and then to have people still make the drive to Syracuse, or to Elmira or to drive down to New York City or Newark.”
This story was originally published by the Ithaca Times as a part of The Cornell Daily Sun – Ithaca News Fellowship.