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Steady growth must be MacArthur Airport’s flight plan

Aerial view of Long Island MacArthur Airport.

Aerial view of Long Island MacArthur Airport. Credit: Charles Eckert

The path forward is becoming clearer at Long Island MacArthur Airport.

The dream of a terminal capable of handling international flights and located on the north side of the airport near the Ronkonkoma train station now has a price tag, and it’s hefty — too hefty for these times.

So the new U.S. Customs and Border Protection station will be built at the existing terminal. That’s the right call, given the circumstances. It’s slated to open in 2019 — but airport and Islip Town officials should do what they can to speed up the process. MacArthur has been poised for success for far too long.

The new customs facility alone won’t be enough to turn the airport into the regional economic generator it can and should be. Travelers must be able to move more quickly between terminal and train station; a consultant is studying options now. MacArthur also needs more passengers. Nearly 90 percent of its outbound traffic originates in Suffolk County; very little comes from Nassau. And few people fly in from out of state for a visit. That’s a lot of untapped potential.

Islip and airport officials wisely are planning a marketing campaign to attack both problems. The first phase will focus on fliers along the Nassau-Suffolk border. The airport has a good story to tell them. It’s easy to get into and out of MacArthur. Flights generally arrive and depart on time. Parking is cheap.

The second phase will try to lure travelers from cities including Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia — where MacArthur tenants Southwest and American have hubs — to Long Island’s beaches, parks, vineyards and restaurants and places like Long Beach, the North Fork and the Hamptons.

More flights are needed, too, a constant and legitimate complaint from travelers. MacArthur recently added operators Elite and Frontier, but National Airlines never got its announced service to Puerto Rico off the ground. That was unfortunate. The customs facility, however, offers rebound potential — flights to the Caribbean and Mexico, destinations highly prized by Long Islanders. MacArthur must capitalize on that, and seek cheaper European carriers.

Airport Commissioner Shelley LaRose-Arken and Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter are playing the long game, and that’s smart given current circumstances. But we hope they don’t lose sight of the dream. Bulk up those domestic and Caribbean routes and attract more passengers, then look again at that north-side terminal.

A consultant said it would cost $73 million for 14 gates, a few more than the current terminal. A moving sidewalk to the train station would cost $60 million. That’s well beyond the $26.25 million MacArthur has in town, county and state commitments — and probably beyond the means of a state already spending big on transportation improvements all over New York. If the Trump administration ever embarks on its promised massive infrastructure program, and the airport becomes more popular, MacArthur and Islip officials should be ready to apply.

Until then, steady if less dramatic progress might be enough to help MacArthur finally spread its wings.