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The Long Island Experience

The New York City area is a great place to work in aviation. However, flying as a passenger can often be the most troublesome. The three major airports - LaGuardia, Kennedy, and Newark - are all historically inconvenient. Known for their frequent airspace delay programs, astronomical user fees (such as parking), and long passenger screening queues, the competitive airfares are often quickly overlooked.

Perhaps in no area of the country is the unprecedented demand for air travel more evident than in New York City. Each airport is slowly being rebuilt, adding to the turmoil. LaGuardia, the first airport to undergo such a project, is nearing completion. However, little can be said about their reputation for ground stops and congestion. Further, it still lacks direct access via rail.

This will make for an interesting few decades for the twenty-plus million people who call the New York City area home. Reliever airports on the city's outskirts have already seen passenger volume spikes. Westchester County Airport, approximately 25 miles northeast of Manhattan, has the highest percentage growth in passenger numbers this year for airports categorized as Small Hubs in the contiguous United States. New York Stewart International Airport has landed new foreign air service with carriers such as PLAY of Iceland and Atlantic Airways of the Faroe Islands. And then there is Long Island.

Over the Years

For some time, MacArthur has been the airport of choice for Long Islanders. In the past, MacArthur has even posted some pretty impressive traffic numbers with many carriers. In 2006, the airport posted almost 200,000 annual operations with about 1.2 million passengers enplaned. Southwest Airlines had begun to make Islip one of its most significant operations in the Northeast. However, traffic has steadily declined ever since, leaving Islip as a shell of what it once was. Last year, MacArthur totaled 116,000 operations and enplaned approximately half of what the airport did at its peak in 2006.

For years, service from legacy carriers has come and gone. Often, this resulted from unfortunate circumstances out of MacArthur's control. For instance, after U.S. Airways and American merged in the early 2010s, service to Washington-Reagan was cut as part of the terms of the merger to prevent anticompetition. Fast forward to September 2022, American Airlines would cut a well-performing route to Philadelphia due to the staffing crisis.

I choose to look at this optimistically for Long Island. Historically, the airport has proven an attractive option for travelers heading to New York. The airport is only a five-minute Uber ride from the LIRR-Ronkonkoma Train Station, which puts you under an hour away from either Penn Station or Grand Central in Manhattan at a very affordable cost. However, construction is underway on an extensive redevelopment surrounding the airport to connect a new terminal with a walkway to the train station.

This will position MacArthur long-term as the most attractive option for reliever airports to help cast their net past their primary catchment area of Long Island. Stewart International is over 60 miles from Manhattan, while Westchester is reaching levels of congestion that border gross negligence. The airport was named the most inconvenient airport for travelers in the holiday season by Forbes in 2022. The ability to tap into even a percentage of the New York City area should start to move traffic numbers back in the direction they have historically achieved.

The Airport

The first thing you will notice about MacArthur is the beautiful infrastructure. What is impressive about the design is the capacity built into the terminal - with eleven gates with room for additional improvisation, you can rest assured that the transition from curb-to-gate will be the most efficient and enjoyable in the New York City area. Southwest has several self-service kiosks, and Frontier and Breeze are located on the other side, with negligible lines during flight times.

Parking is plentiful at approximately $17 daily in the long-term lot, a five-minute walk to the check-in area. Long Island residents can also invest in a permit to access a resident lot at the airport. Particularly for frequent travelers, this is a significant draw to keep passengers coming back. Convenient alternatives have to be just that - convenient. What is more user-friendly than parking your car and walking to your gate in under 15 minutes? Often, that is how long you must wait for one of New York's AirTrains.

Photo: Connect LI.

The airport operator does its due diligence to ensure it runs at its maximum capacity. Aircraft as large as the Airbus A321 frequent the airport - however, some days, you may even see a Boeing 767 lying around somewhere. This is because, even with their 7,000-foot runway, the airport and support infrastructure can accommodate larger aircraft, allowing whomever to do their business as they please. Particularly during the United Nations General Assembly, this can be a sight to see.

The airport itself is a solid mix of both commercial and general aviation. According to its F.A.A. Form 5010 (Airport Master Record) for the last calendar year, Islip has:

  • 116,662 aircraft operations.

  • 309 based fixed-wing aircraft, including 45 corporate jets.

  • 5,943 commercial operations.

There are many tenants at MacArthur to ensure a solid mix of traffic daily.
  • Islip offers plenty of affordable flight training. Heritage Flight Academy is the most well-known, but the airport is also home to an ATP Flight School, as well as Mid Island Air Service and GACE Flying Club.

  • The N.Y. Army National Guard 142nd Aviation Regiment calls Islip home, basing several Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks. Due to military activity, there are often charters to transport troops, as well.

  • Civil Air Patrol has a squadron based on the field.

  • Private charter operator ExcelAire has its own facility on the field. With a dynamic fleet of aircraft, the company has been a staple to the MacArthur community for several years.

Where Can I Go From ISP?

Currently, three major airlines serve the airport - all low-cost carriers.
* Denotes Seasonal Service.

Southwest Airlines is the longest-tenured of the three, having served the airport since 1999. In 2004, Southwest invested $65 million into developing the current terminal, a significant reason for its spaciousness. Since these days, Southwest's presence has dwindled considerably. However, options remain attractive and are trending back upward.

With one of America's most beloved carriers, you can travel to:
  • Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

  • Fort Lauderdale. *

  • Nashville.*

  • Orlando-MCO.

  • Tampa.

  • West Palm Beach.

Southwest has more work to do to restore service at MacArthur. Unquestionably, Frontier's beginning of service to Islip on competing routes has affected Southwest's former strategy. The good news is there has been, and will always be, strong demand for Florida from the Long Island community, allowing many of these routes to coexist.

Interestingly, when searching for New York City flights on the airline's reservation system, Islip is listed as an option. The last time I flew from Baltimore to Islip, I ran into many fellow travelers in the rideshare pickup location, heading to various locations in New York City. Further, Southwest canceled their LaGuardia to Baltimore service in 2022, leaving New Yorkers without a reliable connection to airports spread across the Northeast.

What is noticeably lacking from Southwest's arsenal is service to Chicago-Midway. In June 2012, service from Long Island to Midway was terminated. However, it was not for lack of performance. Midway is a very limited airport in terms of capacity, and Southwest felt they could make more money elsewhere on the map as, at that time, they were beginning to enter larger airports one by one. Certainly, Chicago-Midway is atop the airport's wishlist for service and, if given the chance, would surely have a strong performance.

Service to Baltimore does offer some connections heading west; however, they are not as many nor quite as convenient. On June 6, 2021, Southwest relaunched service to its extensive network in Nashville with weekend service, combining an attractive getaway with opening up more connection options heading west. Hopefully, this route will become a daily frequency.

Frontier entered the Long Island market in 2017 with service to ten cities, which has since been reduced to six. This fact may seem alarming, but I consider it right-sizing to serve leisure destinations better. While some routes are less than daily, the airline currently serves Orlando-MCO twice daily with early morning and evening departures.

A sign of the times is that Frontier is now the market share leader, coming in a few percentage points ahead of Southwest, the carrier that had dominated Long Island's market for years. Frontier's effect shows how much airports like MacArthur could benefit from healthy competition.

If you ask Long Island travelers, they certainly don't hate it. Frontier offers fares sometimes half as cheap as Southwest's, with decent flight times. You will often have to sacrifice a little convenience - like off-peak flight times - for a more reasonable price. However, that is not the case in Islip. The schedule is built very favorably for Long Islanders. Worth mentioning that part of this sacrifice will be the service - it is still Frontier, after all.

With Frontier, you can affordably fly to the following destinations:
  • Ft. Lauderdale.

  • Myrtle Beach.*

  • Orlando-MCO.

  • Raleigh-Durham.*

  • Tampa.

  • West Palm Beach.

The most recent entrant, Breeze Airways, began flights to MacArthur in 2022 with service to Charleston, S.C., and Norfolk, V.A. A relatively new ultra-low-cost carrier in general, Breeze is disrupting the market nationwide with attractive getaways in smaller cities. Most recently, Breeze announced a handful of new cities from Islip, seemingly poised for future growth.

You can fly to the following Seriously Nice destinations:
  • Charleston, S.C.

  • Norfolk, V.A.

  • Portland, M.E.*

  • Raleigh-Durham.*

  • Richmond, V.A.*

  • Vero Beach, FL.*

West Coast flights from MacArthur would be a massive hit. We have seen it work in places like Richmond and Syracuse, where flights from smaller markets have been offered less than daily to prominent West Coast destinations like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco.

What makes this service particularly enticing is the aircraft Breeze utilizes on these routes. The Airbus A220-300, a newer aircraft comprised primarily of composite materials, has the performance to fly from smaller cities on much longer routes while still being able to make money.

This aircraft was built for airports like MacArthur. While Islip has a 7000' runway, previously too short for such stage lengths, it is plenty of room for the Airbus A220-300. Breeze made it work up the road in Westchester for a considerable period of time, and the service was not terminated for lack of performance. Many local constraints often delayed the aircraft's schedule, eventually becoming too much to overcome. This would not be an issue at MacArthur.

With the price point that Breeze offers, you would attract many people who do not want to deal with the hassle of New York's airport system for the significant cost discount. This is how smaller airports like Islip can attract new clients, adding to their considerable customer base.

ISP Moving Forward

It seemed that Long Island was heading in the wrong direction for a while. Southwest was slow to restore service after the pandemic, and American left town shortly after. Recently, there have been signs of much to be excited about in the coming years, especially with the upcoming infrastructure upgrades. All three carriers seem to be very committed to growing service.

While leisure is Islip's primary traveler, two airlines have begun service to Raleigh-Durham in recent years, signifying an attempt at effective point-to-point flying for business purposes. Service so far has been very strong - in fact, Breeze's inaugural Raleigh-Durham flight was 100% full. Other similar markets provide similar potential. Hopefully, these will be explored as time passes.

What continues to blow my mind is the lack of attention from legacy carriers - yet that is not to say I do not get it. Network planning may view customers on Long Island as leakage from their major New York hubs. However, I have a hard time believing a few CRJ-900s a day to Atlanta would greatly impact Delta's profitability at JFK or LGA. Airports are a resource to the community, and Long Island is unquestionably underserved.

For myself, I continue to make Islip my airport of choice whenever possible. It is undeniably the most convenient option in the New York City airport system, the closest thing to a guarantee for a smooth customer experience. I do not mind a simple connection; Baltimore is a place simple to navigate and kill time, and the prices are always enticing. Plus, as you know by now, I love Southwest.

So, keep your eyes on MacArthur moving forward. There is a lot to be excited about from their arsenal of low-cost carriers, future capital projects, and demand for future growth. If there is one thing we know about our unique industry, it is that underserved airports are only a nudge in the right direction away. I encourage you to try MacArthur out for yourself - you won't regret it.

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