Should US Senators Step In When An Airline Stops Service To An Airport?

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13/05/2009 – Should US Senators Step In When An Airline Stops Service To An Airport?

This past week Continental Airlines announced it would be halting its service between New York’s Ithaca-Tompkins County Airport (ITH) and its hub at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), in New Jersey.

Continental Airlines only entered the Ithaca market seven months ago, with four daily flights between ITH-and-EWR, operated by Continental Airline’s regional carrier Commutair, flying as Continental Connection.

Following Continental’s announcement that they would be pulling out of the market, officials at Ithaca-Tompkins County Airport began a campaign to retain Continental at the airport, this is understandable. While the desire to retain the airline at the airport is understandable, the sudden lobbying of New York State’s two Federal Senators, Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is not so understandable .

Yes, Senators should advocate for their constituents, however some of Sen. Gillibrand’s comments on this issue, including “Many families and businesses rely on air service between Ithaca and Newark,” ignore the fact that there is regular daily scheduled service to both New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). Both LGA and PHL service a similar metro market to Newark. Further comments from both Senators hint at the essential need for this seven-month-old route.

In 1978 the airline industry was deregulated with the ‘Airline Deregulation Act.’ This industry deregulation allowed airlines to choose the domestic routes they’d service and the fares they service. To offset this deregulation the U.S. Department of Transportation established the ‘Essential Air Service‘ (EAS) program. The Essential Air Service program provides a minimal level of scheduled air service to primarily rural communities that would otherwise be unprofitable with government subsidies. Currently there are 153 subsidized EAS routes; of these 153 routes 45 are in Alaska.

Should the Senators from New York be alluding to the ‘essential need’ for Continental’s service to Newark? Absolutely not! For starters, ITH offers passengers daily non-stop service to Philadelphia (PHL), New York’s LaGuardia (LGA) and Detroit (DTW). Of this service, PHL is an international airport and DTW offers non-stop international connections to both Europe and Asia, while LaGuardia offers direct access to New York City

Aside from ITH continuing to offer its passengers non-stop flights to three major airports, the airport is a mere 60 driving miles (46 flying miles) from Syracuse-Hancock Airport (SYR). SYR offers service from six airlines, including a low cost carrier, with service to 11 cities, and non-stop connections to 9 major international airline hubs, 4 of these connecting hubs offer non-stop international service to Europe & Asia, as well as links to South America.

Bob Nicholas, Manager of the Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport, has stated that Continental’s flights between ITH-and- (EWR) are often high-yield passengers, with flights averaging a 72% load factor. What is not mentioned by Mr. Nicholas is that Continental services this route with a Dash-8/Q200 (DH2). The DH2 has a maximum capacity of 37 passengers, and a 72% load factor is equal to 26.64 passengers per flight.

While Continental is officially halting the ITH-EWR service due to traffic congestion problems at Newark and in the Metro New York Area, this service also has a financial impact. When airlines reduce and halt routes due to congestion problems the first ones to go are those that provide the least financial benefit. Continental uses eight landing/departing slots daily at Newark’s Liberty International Airport to transport a total of an average of 213.12 passengers travelling to and from Ithaca. As airlines battling to stay financially stable they must weight the costs associated with maintaining a presence in Ithaca, and currently the numbers show that continuing service to Ithaca is not financially viable.

Normally I am a huge advocate for airline service, however my closest airport, Tweed-New Haven (HVN) is 40 miles from my home. The two next closest airports, which I frequently fly from, are 59.7 miles (PVD) and 63 miles (BDL) from my home. Given that my home airport offers five flights per day, on one airline, all on Dash-8 turbo props…and every single flight goes to one airport, Philadelphia (PHL), I am not to concerned that about the ‘essential air service’ from Ithaca to Newark.

Ithaca will continue to have vital links to three major airports. If those serviced by Ithaca are seeking competitive alternatives and more convenient flight connections, there is another airport less than an hour down the road…for me, all my airports are an hour down the road.

While I admire the Senator’s from New York having an interest in their constituents, they should not interfere with an airline’s decisions for the carriers’ route viability and financial stability.

Happy Flying!


  1. The US Airways service out of Ithaca is pretty terrible. The Continental service has been very good.

    I guess Senators might rail at US Airways with the aim of persuading them to make Philadelphia a less horrendous airport or to make La Guardia into a major international airport, but I can’t see either of those working. Mind you, I can’t see our Senators really overturning this decision, either.

    I am surprised that Continental did make this decision; because of Cornell, there’s a large amount of travel out of Ithaca and after years of lamentable US Airways service (to the point where several of the people I know fly out of Syracuse just to use an alternative airline, if they aren’t interest in flying to Detroit first) the Continental was greeted with great enthusiasm. Syracuse is about 75 minutes away, so that’s still a viable airport through much of the year, although travel to Syracuse in Winter isn’t always easy.

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