Faced with a dramatic decline in passengers at Long Island MacArthur Airport, Islip officials are looking for ways to revitalize the town-owned facility, which economists and business leaders agree is crucial to the region's future.
Among the ideas, Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci said, are "exploring a light rail or people-mover between the LIRR [train station at Ronkonkoma] down the airport's east side . . . possible upgrades to the runways themselves, and other safety measures that would make MacArthur more attractive to airlines."
Although other regional airports also lost passengers during the economic downturn, MacArthur's decline is striking: one-third fewer people flew in and out of the Ronkonkoma facility in 2011 than in 2007, according to the latest figures the airport supplies to federal agencies. Total passengers in 2011 were off 9.44 percent from 2010 and last year was the fourth straight year of declining use since the recession hit and oil prices spiked in the summer of 2008.
Long Island Association chief economist Pearl Kamer said the plunging passenger numbers mirror Long Island's unusual experience in this recession. In prior recessions, she said, the Island was behind the nation going in and led it coming out.
Beyond the economy, analysts and aviation experts said, two factors affect MacArthur's ability to lure airlines and increase passenger numbers -- both beyond its control: proximity to New York City airports and the shifting strategies of airlines, especially its dominant carrier, Southwest.
Market of 1.8M people
But the airport's own analysis shows that while each passenger in that area makes an average of 3.7 air trips a year, the airport captures only 25 percent of that travel, with passengers "leaking" to nearby LaGuardia and Kennedy, which offer many more airline choices, particularly nonstop flights.
MacArthur does capture almost 50 percent of passengers in its area when nonstop service is offered, its research shows.
With Suffolk County's population predicted to grow 16 percent by 2030, there's plenty of potential demand to warrant interest from more airlines, analysts said, but MacArthur's location is a challenge.
"If MacArthur's catchment area was in the midst of Kansas, it would probably have a lot more air service, but it's 50 miles from LaGuardia and they overlap," said George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Fairfax, Va.
MacArthur's relationship with Southwest has been both a blessing and a burden, analysts said.
When the carrier arrived in 1999, it virtually doubled traffic at the airport overnight. At its height, Southwest operated 34 flights a day in and out of MacArthur. But as the airline industry contracted globally and nationally, Southwest reacted by concentrating on larger metropolitan markets in the Northeast, analysts said.
Last year, Southwest secured slots at both LaGuardia and Newark, and gained more LaGuardia slots via its AirTran acquisition. It is now down to 20 daily flights from MacArthur and that number will drop to 18 in June when its nonstop flight to Chicago Midway ceases.
Meanwhile, the carrier's dominance and low-cost reputation keep other carriers away.
"Southwest still flies to five Florida destinations, which could be routes of choice for, say, a JetBlue. But in a tough economy, plenty of airlines are going to analyze the situation and say, 'Do we really need to go up against that competition?' " said Mike Boyd, president of Boyd Group, an Evergreen, Colo.-based aviation consulting firm.
MacArthur also needs to take care not to upset Southwest, Hamlin said, adding that the airport's future is very strongly tied in both the short- and medium-term to Southwest.
"It's still the dominant carrier, even without the Chicago route," he said. "It's possible, though, that with more capacity being built now at O'Hare, American or United might now be interested in flying there from MacArthur.
Southwest spokesman Paul Flanigan said the airline "is committed to its service at MacArthur. Southwest continues to talk regularly with airport officials, who do a great job of managing the day-to-day operations there at Islip."
Congestion at Kennedy and LaGuardia, both in Queens, is what many in the industry say will eventually drive more commercial air service to MacArthur. A Regional Planning Authority report published last year identified the Ronkonkoma facility as one of two airports statewide, with Stewart International Airport in Orange County, that could help relieve that congestion.
But the report concludes that, while MacArthur's footprint is twice the size of LaGuardia, its existing runways are too short for larger commercial aircraft. Further study is needed of a direct connection to the LIRR and whether runways should be expanded, the report found.
Arlene Feldman, who retired as the FAA's eastern regional administrator six years ago, said lengthening a runway is a natural consideration for any airport seeking to attract more air service.
"If there's a longer runway, there's a wider safety margin and less risk of flight delays in bad weather," she said. "But of course these things take a lot of time, political will and a lot of public meetings to hear from the surrounding community and to take account of environmental factors. So the planning has to be a long way out."
Republican Croci, a first-timer in political office, said he and the town board want to engage the community, the airport's consultants and town planners in coming months about possible runway extensions. He declined to permit MacArthur Airport Commissioner Teresa Rizzuto to be interviewed, saying he spoke for the airport.
"Until we've had the opportunity to view a draft [of the master plan] and work with the community . . . we're not going to prejudge the best vision for the future of the airport," he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires the airport to produce a master plan, which must detail short-, medium- and long-term development steps needed to meet predicted increases in aviation demand.
Don't want JFK 'next door'
While he wants MacArthur to grow, Croci said, "none of us who grew up around the airport want it to be anything other than something we can all embrace -- none of us who live right next door, as I do, want to be living next door to JFK."
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a MacArthur advocate, told Newsday he sees the airport at a turning point. In the short term, it needs to lure airlines, but longer term, an improved rail link and runway extensions ought to be considered, he said.
"Now, more than ever, we need to work together to develop new ways to enhance MacArthur," he said. "If the Town of Islip decides the runways are something they want to address, I'd obviously have to see their plans, but I would be inclined to help them if that's the direction they want to go in."
After Rizzuto took the helm in 2008, the airport for the first time engaged consultants, at a cost of more than $300,000, partly funded by the FAA, to help market directly to airlines. Rizzuto a former senior United Airlines executive, has leveraged her many industry contacts at dozens of airline and airport events. The airport has spent $200,000 to $300,000 a year for three years on a branding campaign and, 18 months ago, launched an award-winning social media campaign.
Gene Portela, who is on the board of the Long Island Business Aircraft Association, which represents more than 80 aviation-related companies, said the effort has paid off with "a real buzz" created around MacArthur in the industry.
"We had the bottom fall out of the economy, historic highs in fuel costs and airlines parking aircraft in the desert as they rethought their business models," he said in explaining the need for an outreach effort. "Bottom line, the airline market is shrinking and that hurts Islip."
"We face fierce competition here," said Desmond Ryan of the Association for a Better Long Island. "As Long Island businesses look to compete in the global marketplace, this asset will be integral. We need a comprehensive approach that puts everything on the table so this airport can become the economic engine for the entire region."