Southwest Airlines: No plans to leave MacArthur

A 559 Boeing 737 jets flies in from

A 559 Boeing 737 jets flies in from the south landing at MacArthur Airport in Bohemia. (March 29, 2012) (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.)

Southwest Airlines says it has no plans to leave Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, even as the carrier is approaching a date in its contract where it could choose to walk away from the Islip Town-owned facility.

Southwest, the airport's anchor airline, which provides 13 of MacArthur's 22 daily flights, has steadily drawn down service there since 2007. The airline went from a high of 11,416 departures at MacArthur in 2007 to a low of 5,875 in 2012.

As the flights from Islip have decreased, Southwest's flights from LaGuardia Airport have increased. Earlier this month, the airline announced that it would be expanding its service at LaGuardia even more.

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Despite its gradually reduced service and the expansion at LaGuardia, representatives for the airline have repeatedly cited Southwest's dedication to Islip.

"We remain committed to our future at MacArthur Airport," spokesman Brad Hawkins said by email. "Our schedule will be extended through June 2014 . . . with Long Island in it."

Islip Councilman John C. Cochrane Jr., liaison to the airport, said the town has a good relationship and "positive communications" with Southwest, and said the airline is happy with its performance.

"Southwest was 68 percent full flying out of MacArthur two years ago, and it would have been easy then to sit there and say they're out of there," Cochrane said, "but now their flights are going out 92 percent full."

A provision in Southwest's 25-year contract with Islip would allow it to vacate 10 years in, provided it gives notice no later than 91/2 years after the certificate of occupancy on the contract was signed, which happened July 30, 2004. That 91/2-year mark falls on Jan. 30, 2014.

Some aviation industry analysts see Southwest's interests shifting to larger airports and cross-country flights, because airlines make more money on them. At MacArthur, Southwest flies to four Florida cities and Baltimore, all of which are considered "short-haul" trips.

"They merged with AirTran and are going to have fewer airplanes than the two airlines had before," said Michael Boyd, president of Colorado-based Boyd Group International, an aviation consultancy.

And with fewer planes, Boyd said, Southwest's strategy will continue to emphasize longer trips, dropping some of its shorter flights, and refocusing on large hubs.

"The challenge you have right now with Southwest is, with the exception of Baltimore, all the flights are to Florida," he said. "That's great, but that doesn't make Islip a very well-connected airport."

MacArthur was Southwest's debut into the New York market. When Southwest started its first flights from Islip to Nashville, Chicago, Tampa Bay and Baltimore in 1999, it changed everything for the small airport. As part of its 25-year contract, Southwest built eight new gates and the new East Concourse at MacArthur. At the time, it was hovering around 28 flights per day.

Southwest announced in early December it would terminate service out of three areas: Branson Airport in Missouri, Key West International Airport in Florida and Jackson-Evers International Airport in Mississippi.

On the same day, the airline announced it had secured 12 new takeoff and landing slots at LaGuardia from American Airlines as a result of that company's merger with US Airways. Southwest also gained permanent control over 10 takeoff and landing slots it had been leasing from US Airways at LaGuardia, also because of the merger.

Despite those factors, Michael Wittman, a research assistant with MIT's International Center for Air Transportation, said he doesn't think those changes mean Southwest will leave MacArthur when its contract allows.

"I think the airports that Southwest cut service from exhibit different patterns than MacArthur, and I don't think LaGuardia's service is in direct competition with Macarthur in terms of Southwest," Wittman said. "If you look at the type of markets Southwest serves out of LaGuardia, it's Chicago, Atlanta -- business service -- but out of MacArthur, it's vacation destinations in Florida."

Both Boyd and Wittman said even if flights continue to decline at MacArthur, they don't foresee Southwest pulling out as early as January or June.

"They've already made a lot of plans for June," Boyd said.

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