MIAMI— After years of declining service, Islip, N.Y.’s troubled Long Island MacArthur Airport looked like it might be experiencing the beginnings of a revival in 2012 and 2013, as it gained three new destinations and two new airlines. But one of the new routes had already and the others are set to follow. The three routes, US Airways Express to Washington, PenAir to Boston and Allegiant Air to Punta Gorda, Fla., are all very different, as are their reasons for ending and their prospects for being resumed. But the cancellation or suspension of all three shows the airport is still having severe difficulty retaining service —when it even manages to attract it in the first place.
MacArthur, along with Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y. and Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, N.Y., is one of three small, secondary commercial airports serving some portion of the New York City metropolitan area, in this case Long Island. It supplements the area’s three major airports, JFK, LaGuardia and Newark. It isthe only commercial airport in Suffolk County, which occupies the eastern portion of Long Island, and the closest one for all 1.5 million of its residents, along with some residents of the eastern portion of Nassau County just to the west.
That gives it a catchment area with a population of around 2 million. Were it not part of a much larger metropolitan area, that population would easily be enough to sustain at least a medium-sized airport. But JFK is only 35 miles to the west of MacArthur; LaGuardia, 40. The majority of the population in MacArthur’s catchment area lies to its west as well, even closer to those airports. Not surprisingly, most Long Island residents simply drive west to JFK or LaGuardia when they fly, taking advantage of the vast array of destinations with nonstop flights, many with frequent service and numerous airlines to choose from, even though MacArthur may technically be the closest airport.
A minor alternative to the area’s other airports ever since opening to commercial traffic in 1960, MacArthur’s big chance at success seemed to come in 1999, when it became the first New York City-area airport served by Southwest Airlines. The decision by the country’s biggest low-cost carrier to make the airport its entry point into the country’s biggest air travel market is still apparent 15 years later: even as many other carriers abandoned the airport in the 2000s, Southwest expanded service, quickly becoming the dominant carrier it remains today. In 2013, Southwest accounted for 89% of MacArthur’s passenger traffic, a figure that was down from previous years: it accounted for over 90% every year from 2006 to 2012.
In the early 2000s, MacArthur, which remained Southwest’s only New York City-area airport until 2009, looked set to become a sizable focus city for the carrier. In 2006 the airport completed a major terminal expansion to accommodate the airline’s then-expanding operations. But the peak came shortly thereafter in 2007, when the airport boarded 1,165,000 passengers, 94% of them on Southwest.
The recession that began in 2008 caused an industry-wide decline in traffic, but in the case of MacArthur this was severely compounded by Southwest’s arrival at LaGuardia in June 2009. LaGuardia is widely considered the New York City area’s most desirable airport for domestic flights, and the move signaled a larger, more mature Southwest abandoning its old strategy of avoiding congested major airports like LaGuardia in favor of smaller ones like MacArthur.
The move effectively ended MacArthur’s role as Southwest’s beachhead in the vitally important New York City-area market, a role that had defined the airport for the preceding decade. Southwest now accounted for nearly all the airport’s passenger traffic, and it declined precipitously as the airline cut service: from 2007’s high, passenger boardings declined 43% to only 661,000 in 2013, propelled by an even steeper 46% decline on Southwest from 1,098,000 in 2007 to 591,000 in 2013. Meanwhile, Southwest also began serving Newark in 2011, giving it a presence at two of the three major area airports, and it has expanded aggressively at both.
By 2013, the transition was largely over. MacArthur dropped from being Southwest’s busiest airport in the New York City area to its slowest, trailing both LaGuardia, in first place, and Newark.
Southwest’s declining presence at MacArthur triggered a crisis at the airport, causing the airport to hemorrhage cash. The issue has become a lightning rod in the Town of Islip’s local politics. The town owns and operates the airport, and is thus responsible for making up its now multimillion-dollar losses. Local politicians have blamed each other for causing the decline or failing to do enough to reverse it, while airport directors have been hired and fired by successive administrations. (The Town of Islip declined our request to comment.) In 2012 the town introduced an incentive program that, according to a town press release, is “aimed at attracting new carriers and increasing service by incumbent carriers, by offering several options to airlines including waiving of landing fees and some rental charges, and a town commitment to support the carriers marketing and advertising initiatives up to $100,000.”Town officials credit the program with helping to attract new service. But maintaining that service apparently remains a serious challenge.