For the first nine months of 2012, MacArthur saw a 33 percent increase in flights by smaller private planes based at the airport compared with the same period in 2011. General aviation flights by planes not based at MacArthur jumped 15.5 percent in the same time frame. Overall, these noncommercial, nonmilitary flights were up 25 percent.
"It's very healthy," said deputy airport commissioner Terry Hennessey. "Probably the healthiest we've seen in a number of years, probably going back to 2008 or so."
While aircraft fuel prices remain high, Hennessey attributes the busier skies to an economy that's slowly improving. "People are feeling better about the economy and themselves. Local people are doing more flying," Hennessey said.
The Islip Town board recently voted to implement a general-aviation landing fee for planes not based at town-owned MacArthur; the minimum is $10. But Hennessey said the fee wouldn't slow the increase in flights.
Compared with the cost of fuel and flying in general, he said, "It's a modest amount of money. It doesn't really impact and it shouldn't prevent someone from flying here."
The surge in private flights has trickled down to local business. When more people are flying, the need for regular maintenance and fuel increases, a boon to fixed base operators and other airport businesses.
That's been the case for MacArthur-based A&P Aircraft Maintenance, said president Ed Libassi. Because of high fuel prices early this year, "Business was completely dead," he said. "No one was even turning a propeller."
But in April, he said, fuel prices started to drop. "My phone started to ring . . . Compared to last year I probably am up 35 percent or better," Libassi said. "I think we put on 12 new customers this year . . . In the world of aviation, that's a lot of airplanes."
But for Mid-Island Air Service, a MacArthur-based flight school that also sells and stores aircraft, business has been "dismal."
"The fuel prices are killing us," said operating partner Vincent Basile. "We're just finding expendable income is just not there. Businesses are suffering, and we take care of a lot of corporate aircraft as well and they're slowing down. They haven't flown as many hours as they did in the past."
Republic Airport in East Farmingdale hasn't seen the same spike. A spokesman said the total number of flights this year hasn't been tabulated, but officials don't expect to see a similar increase, due in part to the effects of superstorm Sandy.
MacArthur's good news doesn't extend to commercial flights, which have sagged, Hennessey said.
"We just need more commercial activity now," he said.
The airport has two commercial airlines and about 23 flights a day, a number that fluctuates with the seasons and demand. "But we're working on that," Hennessey said.