MacArthur Airport, like other small airfields, losing flights, carriers, says study

The baggage claim area of Long Island MacArthur

The baggage claim area of Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma on April, 23, 2014. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

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Small airports across the country, including Long Island MacArthur Airport, are losing flights, destinations and carriers, according to a new study by MIT's International Center for Air Transportation.

From 2012 to 2013 alone, smaller airports — those with commercial flights that aren't considered large hubs, like LaGuardia Airport, lost 2.9 percent of their domestic flights, the study said.

"Over the last year, it seems that a lot of markets have seen small adjustments in capacity — losing a couple frequencies or a destination or two," said Michael D. Wittman, the study's author.

Those losses were even more pronounced locally.

At Ronkonkoma-based MacArthur, departures fell 5.8 percent — from 7,930 in 2012 to 7,473 in 2013. The Islip Town-run airport was dealt another blow recently when its two newest airlines, PenAir and Allegiant Air, decided within a year of beginning service to suspend or end their flights there.

The airport has between 19 and 20 flights per day, mostly to Florida via Southwest Airlines, said Islip Supervisor Tom Croci. But even if that number drops, he stressed that the airport isn't going anywhere.

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"People on Long Island don't want that airport to go away, and the people in the Town of Islip like local control of that airport so it doesn't turn into JFK or LaGuardia — they don't want JFK or LaGuardia in their backyard," Croci said. "They want a MacArthur Airport that's got some choices and airlines, and generates revenue."

The national study updates one published in 2013 that compared the number of domestic flights at hundreds of airports from 2007 to 2012.

The study pointed out that because of a combination of rocketing fuel prices, a troubled economy and efforts by domestic airlines to decrease redundant flights to boost profit margins, commercial airports across all categories lost 14.3 percent of their domestic departures in those five years. Large hubs lost 8.8 percent of their flights, medium-sized hubs dropped by 26.2 percent and flights at small airports fell an average of 18.2 percent.

The new data shows that between 2012 and 2013, large hubs lost only 0.2 percent of flights on average, medium hubs 2.1 percent, small hubs 3 percent and non-hub airports — the smallest airports with commercial service — lost 4.2 percent of their departures.

MacArthur, like many other small airports across the country, has seen severe cuts in destinations and flights since 2007 — commercial departures have decreased by 50 percent at the Ronkonkoma airport since then, according to Wittman's data.

"Medium hubs are starting to turn around and larger hubs are, too, but overall as a whole, smaller airports are either losing service or seeing a lower level of service be maintained for another year," Wittman said.

Wittman said he doesn't expect to see many small airports lose all their commercial service and that a strong local economy is the best indicator of whether an airport will be able to maintain and grow its flights and destinations.

"North Dakota otherwise wouldn't be getting a lot of air service, but due to all the oil and shale gas, all the North Dakota airports are seeing double-digit growth in flights," Wittman said. "Even hubs that had service removed, if the local economy is strong enough, you expect other airlines to enter in and provide service."

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Of all small airport hubs — defined by the Federal Aviation Administration as catching between 0.05 percent and 0.25 percent of the total number of passenger trips nationwide for the previous year — MacArthur experienced the steepest declines in flights between 2007 and 2013.

Compounding its plight as a small community airport in a time of airlines tightening their belts, Wittman said, is that MacArthur sits in the shadow of LaGuardia, Kennedy Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport.

"If you're the small airport in a multiairport region with three big behemoths, it's really hard for the airport to maintain that level of service," Wittman said.

MacArthur and upstate Stewart International Airport — a small commercial airport in the southern Hudson Valley — face similar challenges because of this proximity, Wittman said. Being the two minor players "among three very large airports in the region, it's not surprising they haven't seen the growth you would have expected," he said.

Since 2007, Stewart has lost more than half of its domestic departures, according to the new study — from 7,387 to 3,219 last year.

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Croci said airport officials are actively courting new airlines and are focused on marketing the airport as a good business partner.

He said they're also looking at ways to improve their incentive package to get new airlines in the door.

"People really love to fly out of this airport," Croci said. "It's convenient, wait times are far below those of Kennedy and LaGuardia, it's friendly, you don't have the stress factor."

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