Long Island MacArthur Airport: The Frontier Years
Promise to Ronkonkoma-located Long Island MacArthur Airport, operating in the shadows of Manhattan-proximity La Guardia and JFK International airports, always came in the form of new airline serve, which attempted to achieve profitability and replace that which the discontinued ones failed to. Several ultimately unsuccessful low-cost and upstart carriers left little more than a fading imprint during the past half-decade.
Alaska-based PenAir, for example, seeking to replace the popular, multiple-daily Saab S-340 flights once operated by Business Express and later American Eagle between Long Island and Boston, forged tis own link in July of 2013 with two daily roundtrips operated by the same 34-passenger turboprop. But poor load factors led to its discontinuation a year later.
“We were losing money,” according to David Hall, PenAir’s Chief Operation Officer. “We just weren’t able to get to a consistent operating profit. Unfortunately, it’s a business and that’s how it works.”
Another attempt was made by low-cost, Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, which inaugurated two weekly roundtrips to Punta Gorda, Florida, in December of 2013. Because their winter sun-seeking draw diminished in the spring, they were discontinued on May 26 of the following year and were intended to be reinstated in December. They never were.
Still another Islip entrant was Elite Airways. Founded, as reflected by its name, in 2016 by airline veterans wishing to establish a higher-quality airline that deviated from the proliferation of no-frills ones, it was certified as a US Part 121 air carrier that offered charter and scheduled service, initially transporting professional and college sports teams, company executives, heads of state, White House press corps, and VIP tour groups. Headquartered in Portland, Maine, but concentrating its maintenance, crew training, sales, and marketing in Melbourne, Florida, it operated charter flights for the first six years of its existence before transitioning to scheduled ones with a minuscule route system, including Melbourne-Portland, Naples (Florida)-Newark, Naples-Portland, Vero Beach (Florida)-Newark, and Rockford (Illinois)-Fort Collins (Colorado) sectors. Its 11-strong Bombardier Region Jet fleet consisted of a single CRJ-100, five CRJ-200s, and five CRJ-700s.
Seeking incentives, such as reduced or waved landing fees, underserved airports with its 50- and 70-seat aircraft, It intended to offer sunbirds air links between New England and Florida, very much the way Northeast had with its 727 “Yellowbirds” in the early-1970s before Delta acquired the carrier. Because of its airline veteran founders, who additionally endeavored to resurrect the higher quality inflight service of the full-fare legacy carriers, it bore similarities with no-longer existent KIWI Airways.
Elite touted itself as “Melbourne’s hometown airline.”
Catalyst to the Long Island MacArthur service was passenger request.
“The funniest thing is that if it wasn’t for people who are originally from Long Island, we wouldn’t be here,” according to Elite Airways president John Pearsall. “On our route we’re presently flying between Newark and Vero Beach… we’ve had more people asking for Islip, Long Island, than any other destination we fly to.”
Twice-weekly service, on Friday and Sunday, to Portland, Maine; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and Melbourne, Florida, on which $99.00, $139.00, and $149.00 introductory fares were respectively charged, began on June 17, 2016, amid the typically upbeat comments from Pearsall, who said that he expected “passenger demand to be strong for these new routes” and Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter, who commented, “I am thrilled that the Town of Islip is entering into a partnership with Elite Airways. The addition of Elite to the Long Island MacArthur Airport family will offer both residents and those living in Nassau and Suffolk counties the opportunity to travel to some of the most desirable vacation destinations along the east coast… “
The Portland route continued to Bar Harbor, while that to Melbourne was envisioned as being extended to St. Croix, the US Virgin Islands.
Because of Elite’s presence in Rockford, Illinois, it also contemplated connecting Islip with that Chicago-alternative destination.
“We will be announcing additional destinations as we get more and more familiar with the market here,” Pearsall said.
Another route then under consideration was that to Newport News, Virginia, slated for a March 13, 2017 inauguration. But it was forced to postpone it because of a pending investigation concerning the $3.55 million state funding, intended for infrastructure improvement that was allegedly used to guarantee a loan for a low cost carrier.
Although the controversy did not involve Elite itself, it found it prudent to avoid the airport.
“The Peninsula Airport Commission has been informed that Elite Airways has chosen to temporarily suspend service from the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (to Newark) due to the continuing negative and inaccurate headlines, which are preventing the introduction of this brand new property to our community,” according to a statement. “The commission and Elite Airways have a great working relationship as well as support for one another. We look forward to setting a new launch date over the next few months. We feel certain that Elite will find success out of the market, and that our community will enjoy their ‘Elite Class’ of service.”
“It was a difficult decision to postpone the start of service… ,” Pearsall said, “as the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport has been a great partner to work with. We strongly believe in the market and want to give this service the best possible climate to start in. Postponing the start date will allow both the airline and the airport to be more successful in launching new air service to meet the needs of the community.”
It never did. Nor did it to Rockford. And existing Islip service, considered seasonal, was suspended between January 15 and February 16, 2017, before it was reinstated and severed a second time at the end of April. Although a second reintroduction was slated for July, it was never implemented.
While the service duration of these carriers was brief, one, National Airlines, never even touched down on Long Island soil.
Founded in 2008, the Orlando-based airline operated passenger and cargo flights with Boeing 747-400BCFs as National Air Cargo, but upgraded to public charter service on June 11, 2016 under Department of Transportation (DOT) PC#16-038, whose flights were sold by FlyBranson Travel LLC dba (doing business as) Branson Air Express and operated by National Air Cargo Group, Inc., which itself did business as National Airlines.. Its fleet, a pair of Rolls Royce 40,200 thrust-pound RB.211-535E4-powered Boeing 757-200s configured for 170 (26 first class and 144 coach) and 184 (22 first class and 162 coach) passengers, was intended for a six-destination route system, encompassing Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; Islip, New York; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Sanford-Orlando, Florida; St. John’s, Newfoundland; and Windsor, Ontario.
“At National Airlines we provide an enhanced passenger travel experience air mile after air mile,” it described itself. “Our uncompromising quality, unrelenting service, and unmatched agility set us apart as one of the market’s most elite passenger airlines. We travel farther, move faster, and arrive on time with a focused commitment to safe performance. From the runway to the horizon, National provides a world-class flight experience.
“National is committed to customer care. We believe our passengers are the most precious cargo that an aircraft can carry, and therefore we treat each individual as an elite global VIP. From the dedicated service of our inflight crew to the undeniable beauty of our aircraft, we focus on the details.”
Planned were two weekly departures to Aguadilla as Flight N8 273 on Monday and Friday and four to San Juan as Flight N8 231 on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from Islip. All were scheduled to leave at 0900.
“The city of Islip is a wonderful and engaging community.” according to Edward Davidson, National’s president and CEO, “and Long Island MacArthur Airport offers both outstanding service and convenience for our customers. National Airlines believes there is demand for our unique brand of exclusive service of inclusive fares between Islip, San Juan, and Aguadilla.”
“There is a vibrant Puerto Rican community in and around Islip and the entire New York City region,” he continued, “and we believe travelers will find our combination of convenient location and inclusive service very attractive.”
Although it would have constituted the first nonstop service to the Caribbean from the Long Island airport, a lack of suitable equipment precluded its inauguration, resulting in a six-month delay and prompting passenger refunds.
“National has experienced challenges acquiring the very popular Boeing 757 aircraft,” according to a statement issued by Town of Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter. “Regretfully, this has prompted National to postpone the June 1 launch from Long Island MacArthur Airport to Puerto Rico. However, the Town remains very enthusiastic in welcoming National Airlines t to our airport family.”
It was never given the opportunity to do so.
The airport fared far better with the next carrier to touchdown on its runways, ultra-low-cost, Denver-based Frontier. Announcing nonstop service to Orlando in May of 2017, the airline, an Airbus A320 operator, placed itself in competition with incumbent Southwest to that destination and Florida in general, offering unbundled, $39.00 introductory fares, with additional fees for checked baggage, early boarding, drinks, snacks, and refundability. Based upon advanced bookings, it became the threshold to a significant Islip presence that would entail more nonstop flights and to further destinations than Southwest itself and (then) Elite had offered.
As part of 21 cities it was adding to its existing 61, it was considered the first step in an expansion that would double its size in the next five years.
“Islip is going to be part of the largest expansion in Frontier’s history,” said Scott Fisher, the carrier’s senior director, at a MacArthur news conference.
Because of airport facility availability, a lack of congestion, and the reconstruction of La Guardia, which it also served, Fisher labeled it an “easy airport experience” in the otherwise competitive New York market. “This became a no-brainer in terms of a partnership,” he said.
“We thank you for your confidence in what we know is truly a treasure that has been untapped,” Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter said to Fisher at the news conference. “This is really going to reap a tremendous amount of rewards for everybody.”
Touching down at 0936 after an inbound ferry flight from Orlando on August 16 and given a water cannon salute from MacArthur Airport Fire-Rescue, the single-class Frontier A320-200, designated Flight F9 1779, became the inaugural departure, pushed back from the gate at 1045. It would return as Flight F9 1778 at 2155 that evening.
It became the first in a dual-phase expansion at MacArthur, with service to Fort Myers, Miami, New Orleans, Tampa, and West Palm Beach beginning on October 5, and that to Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis the following April 9, 2018. Atlanta and Chicago constituted two of the airport’s once-served, but subsequently lost destinations. They remained the two still most-requested ones.
Yet, because deregulation facilitated the rapid entry and exit of markets, and very low-fare carriers such as Frontier, by necessity, were forced to adopt hairpin triggers when revenue fell below expectations, a significant portion of its Islip route system was modified shortly after disappointing load factors dictated the need to do so.
The first destination to be eliminated, on March 5, was New Orleans.
“We constantly evaluate route performance,” according to Frontier spokesman Richard Oliver III. “Unfortunately, this capacity was better… redeployed elsewhere in our route network.”
Airport Commissioner Shelley LaRose-Arken echoed this reality.
“Unfortunately, one of (Frontier’s) ten routes-New Orleans-did not perform as was anticipated, and therefore adjustments to the schedule are being made to ensure the carrier continues to be successful in the market.”
Like the first in a string of falling dominoes, however, it knocked down Miami and Fort Myers on April 8.
“They just weren’t meeting our expectations,” Oliver III said.
Two more dominoes fell on July 5-namely, Detroit and Minneapolis.
“We haven’t seen the level of demand that we need to see for the routes,” said Daniel Shurz, Frontier’s Vice President of Commercial Operations.
Myrtle Beach and San Juan replaced two of the original destinations, and Fort Myers, Miami, and West Palm Beach were being considered for reinstatement during the winter 2018-2019 season.
Despite the cancellations, Frontier remained committed to Islip, provided load factors ensured adequate profitability.
“We’ve been working together with the airport and they’ve done a good job promoting service,” said Shurz.
Although American Eagle and Southwest remained the long-time anchor tenants, they made tiny adjustments themselves. The former upgraded its 37-passenger de Havilland of Canada DHC-8-100 turboprop to American’s Philadelphia hub to a 45-passenger Embraer ERJ-145 pure-jet, representing a 31-percent capacity increase, while the latter inaugurated one-stop, single-aircraft service to Raleigh/Durham, via Baltimore, facilitating same-day return business travel.
Long Island MacArthur continued its perpetual search for airlines, while the airliners themselves continued their search for passengers and profitability in the shadow of the New York airports, as evidenced by the latest round of carrier entries and exits. Yet, despite losses between 2011 and 2014, with the $2 million one its largest in 2012, it ended 2017 with an almost $3 million surplus.
In the fiscal year from February 2017 to February of 2018, it recorded 6,473 aircraft departures, a 10.67-percent increase, 694,000 arriving passengers, a 17.28-percent increase, and 697,000 departing passengers, a 17.43-percent increase, according to DOT statistics. The number of nonstops served more than doubled, from seven to 15.
Like American Airlines in the 1970s, Northeastern International in the 1980s, and Southwest in the 1990s, Frontier could serve as the catalyst to the airport’s next development cycle, provided it can determine the markets that ensure its profitability and long-term presence.