In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, airline travel demand is back — but airports are still recovering. Like many airports across the country, the Ithaca Tompkins International Airport is facing widespread issues, like the national pilot shortage, in addition to regional problems.
On Wednesday, airport leadership hosted the first-ever Ithaca airport town hall to discuss these problems and implementation of potential solutions.
“In the United States, passengers fell 97 percent from 2.5 million to under 100,000. So we’re trying to build that back,” said ITH Airport Director Roxan Noble. “This is hard. This isn’t going to be easy. It’s not something that can happen overnight. We’re working to not only increase our relationships with our current airline partners, but talk to new airlines, getting the information out of why [to fly] Ithaca.”
Despite the loss of American Airlines in September, airport leaders said at Wednesday’s town hall that their plan for 2023 is to keep pushing forward and encourage the local community to fly Ithaca.
Matthew Colbert ’09, ITH’s air service development consultant and the founder and principal consultant of Empire Aviation Services, said the Ithaca airport was able to recover from the surge in passenger demand in 2020 due to the structure of Ithaca’s market.
“Ithaca is blessed by the strength of its economy,” Colbert said. “Having two anchors of the educational institutions helps a lot because they are very resilient. When they came back, that helped.”
But the return in passenger demand resulted in a dire nationwide pilot shortage. Training to become a pilot costs around $100,000 when starting with no prior experience, while the starting airline pilot salary was around $25,000 prior to the pandemic, according to Colbert. Training also became more extensive in 2013, decreasing the overall desirability of becoming an airline pilot.
“When COVID happened, airlines got billions and billions of government money and they didn’t know how long COVID — that real intense drop off in demand — would last, so they cut costs,” Colbert said. “They couldn’t do layoffs legally, so they offered the most senior pilots, the most highly paid pilots… buyouts.”
Fewer pilots have been entering the industry over the past few decades, and most senior pilots retired during the pandemic, exacerbating the pilot shortage. Airlines took measures to increase pilot pay and make the career choice more attractive, but according to Colbert, airlines are prioritizing large planes since there aren’t enough pilots to fly smaller jets. This is where the effect on Ithaca is felt the most.
Colbert noted that American Airlines left Ithaca — despite being profitable here — because they didn’t have the pilots to operate smaller flights, like the popular Charlotte route. However, he assured the public that they shouldn’t expect to see more airline losses in the near future.
“Because of the strength of the economy in Ithaca, Delta and United are committed to the market,” Colbert said about the remaining two airlines that service ITH. “As long as it maintains profitability, it’s appealing to them.”
Airport Deputy Director Josh Nalley said that leadership is working each day to secure more airline service to the Ithaca airport.
“We need to expand what we have,” Nalley said. “The goal is, of course, more frequency, more seats in the market, [which] brings our prices down, we fill them up, and then everything grows at that point.”
Nalley assured community members that the airport is aware of the public demand for bringing back the Washington Dulles flights, in addition to Florida and more West Coast travel options.
“We want to let everybody know that [in] 2023, our focus is to keep pushing this forward with the airlines, taking them to the table,” Nalley said.
To help assist the airport, the Tompkins County Legislature allocated $2.7 million over three years in its 2023 budget. According to Nalley, this was the first time in the history of the airport that leadership was put in the position to ask the county for financial support — the airport had always been self-sufficient.
Legislator Michael Lane of District 14 told community members at the town hall that the county is committed to the Ithaca airport.
“We need this airport because we are a global community,” Lane said. “We have to support this and we have to help them build up again. And you should all help… think about flying here instead of flying in Syracuse, and think about the extra money and the extra time and the extra lousy road up to Interstate 81 on cold, wintry nights.”
Airport leadership stressed that the convenience of the Ithaca airport is what community members need to consider most. According to Colbert, Ithaca residents can save over an hour and a half by flying out of Ithaca instead of Syracuse in drive and wait time.
“You may not be able to fly out of Ithaca, you might not be able to get a price to fly out of Ithaca, but try Ithaca,” Noble said. “Always try Ithaca first.”