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Editorial: MacArthur faces big challenges to regain altitude

A Southwest Airline 737 plane landing at MacArthur

A Southwest Airline 737 plane landing at MacArthur Airport in Islip. (March 16, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Helping Long Island MacArthur Airport reach its potential as a local convenience and an economic driver is a classic "chicken and egg" challenge.

To persuade new airlines to come and the ones already serving the Islip airport to expand, officials have to convince the industry that local residents are willing and eager to use the regional airport to avoid the snarls of LaGuardia and JFK. But to make passengers willing and eager to use MacArthur, they've got to be convinced airlines are flying numerous, convenient and affordable routes out of the airport.

These challenges have not been met well lately. Flights out of the airport have declined almost 50 percent in the past six years. That mirrors a national trend, particularly among regional airports, but MacArthur, run by the Town of Islip, has fared worse than most.

A recent Newsday story focused on that decline, leading to a flurry of pro-airport activity. In particular, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggests adding international flights by installing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection clearance facility.

That's not a bad idea, as part of a broad strategy, but it's easier said than done and only a very partial remedy. Aviation experts say the list of airports looking to add international flights and customs facilities is long, and the resources of the agency are stretched to the limit.

Schumer, of course, can be very convincing, and if his powers of persuasion can be used to advance MacArthur's cause, we wish him luck.

MacArthur has real advantages for Long Islanders: cheaper parking than city airports, short lines, short walks to gates, relatively easy drives to and from the airport, and great on-time performance. MacArthur, says Islip Supervisor Tom Croci, also has leadership in place with the specific skills and experience in airline and airport operations needed to make MacArthur successful. Unfortunately, Croci leaves soon for 10 months of active duty in the Naval Reserve, raising concerns that it will be hard to create and maintain forward momentum for MacArthur.

The core of the problem, though, is that MacArthur suffers, both in perception and in reality, from too few destination options, too few direct flights and higher fares than the big airports for the same trips.

This week in the online Newsday Opinion forum "Take the Podium," readers were asked, "What would cause you to use MacArthur Airport more?" Respondents overwhelmingly said "direct flights to more locations," and showed disdain for multi-hop trips that often double travel time. Also mentioned was the fact that fares are often lower from LaGuardia and JFK for similar trips, but respondents found this easier to forgive in return for the cheaper parking and convenience MacArthur offers.

Airport and Islip officials say they'd welcome a customs office and are seeking international flights to places like the Caribbean and Canada. But they also agree that the real coup for MacArthur would be establishing or increasing direct flights to popular destinations like Boston, Chicago, Albany, Las Vegas and vacation sites in Florida.

A vibrant local economy could make that happen, along with sustained focus and vision from officials, as well as marketing that sells travelers on the ease of Islip services, and carriers on the prospect that there's money to be made here.


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