The History of Long Island MacArthur Airport’s Florida Service

Introduction:

While Islip’s Long Island MacArthur Airport struggled for identity and purpose during the first three decades of its scheduled service existence, with turboprop commuter flights to northeast destinations and pure-jet, trunk-carrier BAC-111-200s, DC-9-30s, and 727-100s to Albany, Washington-National, and Chicago-O’Hare with the likes of Allegheny/USAir and American, what was needed was a market that would produce consistent demand, putting the regional air field on the map. That market, not filled until the early-1980s, was Florida and it has remained its lifeblood ever since.

First to provide the vital Long Island-Florida link was Northeastern International Airways.

1980’s:

Long aware of the need to connect Long Island’s only commercial airport with both sunshine state retired parents and its beaches with winter tourists, Stephen L. Quinto, born in the Bronx in 1935, but raised on Long Island itself, combined deregulation with bottom basement aircraft leases and took the bold step of injecting Islip with its first nonstop Florida air service, specifically to Ft. Lauderdale, enabling residents to avoid the drive to and congestion of the major New York airports, particularly JFK and La Guardia.

The inaugural equipment, taking from as a single 185-passenger, all-coach configured DC-8-50 previously operated by Evergreen International Airways, departed on February 11, 1982, bound for Ft. Lauderdale. What may have become a luxury decades later, the low, unrestricted fares assessed to fly in it included baggage check-in and in-flight beverages and snacks. While it operated four times per week and once to Orlando, a second aircraft of the same type facilitated increased frequencies and destinations.

Passenger numbers, which affected airport revenues through concession fees, hovered at the 150,000-mark since Northeastern’s almost 11-month debut and pointed to promise for both the carrier and the airport.

Aircraft numbers also translated into additional destinations. In this case, two 128-passneger, former Pan Am 727-100s eventually facilitated seven daily departures to Ft. Lauderdale, Hartford, Miami, Orlando, and St. Petersburg, and the tri-jets were soon joined by a trio of long-range DC-8-62s.

Officials from the Town of Islip, which owned and operated Long Island MacArthur, were, to put it mildly, pleased, since 6,597 air carrier movements and 546,996 passengers were recorded in 1983 due in significant part to Northeastern and Quinto’s vision.

The following year, its February 9, 1984 system timetable bore witness to its success, with three departures to Ft. Lauderdale at 0840, 1600, and 1945; one to Orlando at 0950; two to St. Petersburg at 1000 and 1945; and one to West Palm Beach at 1515.

But success could sometimes be equated with smart, and Quinto’s Northeastern became too enthusiastic in breaking from its traditional narrow body Florida niche by leasing four 314-passenger widebody Airbus A300B2s and routing them, often in competition with incumbent carriers, transcontinentally from Miami to Los Angeles with intermediate stops in New Orleans, among other routes. Larger capacity 727-200s had also been acquired.

Indeed, by the summer of 1984, it operated 16 DC-8s, 727s, and A300s to 17 US cities on 66 daily sectors, recording the highest load factors, of 71.5 percent, of any US airline, enabling it to grow into the 18th largest domestic carrier as measured by revenue passenger miles.

However, passenger numbers at inadequate fares yielded losses and the inability to meet payments, prompting aircraft returns, service discontinuations, and employee layoffs, and forcing its January 3, 1985 bankruptcy filing with $28 million in assets and $48 million in liabilities.

Returning to its roots with a single no-frills Islip-Ft. Lauderdale segment, it progressively re-expanded to Orlando, St. Petersburg, and West Palm Beach. Fares as low as $49.00, however, could not sustain its financial lift, resulting in a four-month service suspension, during which Quinto made several last-ditch efforts to secure aircraft, including the lease of ten Braniff International 727-200s, those of United, and a single MD-82 from Alisarda. Some subservices were operated by All Star Airlines and Emerald Air with DC-9s.

Although it could not return to its former glory and permanently ceased operations in 1986, the 10,750 air carrier movements and 810,751 passengers recorded two years earlier, its last full-year of operations, indicated that the Long Island-Florida market was the airport’s missing link, toward which Northeastern had served as its catalyst, and its legacy would be reflected by every airline that subsequently filled it. And there were many that did.

First to fill the void was Eastern Airlines. Operating the largest aircraft from the MacArthur field, it routed a daily, 199-passenger 757-200 between Boston and Ft. Lauderdale in 1985, which touched down there on both its south- and northbound sectors. Fares were $99.00. While its operation was brief, the next decade awaited with several carriers lining up to serve the route.

1990’s:

Although its own reign would be equally brief, Braniff, the third rendition to carry the Thomas Braniff name, commenced its own Islip-Ft. Lauderdale and -Orlando service in July of 1991 with $69.00 introductory fares. They rose to $119.00 for Monday to Wednesday travel.

Its daily 727-100, operating as Flight 111, departed MacArthur at 0800 and landed in Ft. Lauderdale at 1045. A 30-minute turn-around saw it take off at 1115, now as Flight 112, and touch down again on Long Island soil at 1350. Suffering from the same inadequate cash flow malady as its two previous versions, however, it ceased service in June of the following year.

A temporary, although ultimately permanent, replacement appeared in the guise of Carnival Airlines on July 31.

Created as a single-class, low-fare deregulation carrier, it transported passengers from the northeast to the sunspots of Florida, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean.

Initially experimenting with the market during the winter of 1991 to 1992, it only operated for a two-week period, but did not attract sufficient traffic to support its 737-400s. Yet Braniff’s exit, which left it without competition, screamed of the need for a replacement, since it, along with Northeastern and Eastern, had established a low-fare market. Like all three, it began with a single daily Ft. Lauderdale rotation.

Established by Carnival Cruise Lines’ founder and CEO, Ted Arison, to funnel people to its principle Miami and Ft. Lauderdale cruise embarkation points, it purchased Pacific Interstate Airlines for this purpose, which itself had been created in 1984 to operate charter flights from its Las Vegas base to Los Angeles. Yet its brief history was directionless, with both frequent name and strategy changes.

A year after it planted its West Coast roots, it adopted the Pacific Inter Air designation and in 1987 rebranded itself Bahamas Express, at least shifting toward Carnival’s eventual eastern seaboard territory, with flights from several cities to Freeport. Although Carnival’s 1988 acquisition saw it adopt the title of “Fun Air,” this name never graced an airplane. Instead, its cruise ship passengers were initially transported on Majestic Air 727-100s.

Originally based in Dania Beach, Florida, it subsequently relocated to Ft. Lauderdale, amassing a narrow and widebody fleet of five 737-200s, eight 737-400s, six 727-200s, and six A300B4-200s, employing some 1,300 personnel, and serving Islip, Newark, and New York-JFK in the northeast; Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Tampa, and West Palm Beach in Florida; Nassau in the Bahamas; Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands; and Aguadilla, Ponce, and San Juan in the Caribbean.

Its simplified frequent flyer program advised, “Earn a free ticket after only ten round trips on Carnival Air Lines.”

In 1992 it carried just over a million passengers, a 43.9-percent increase, and earned $88.5 million in revenues, a 67.8-percent increase.

Its winter 1993-1994 flight schedule, which became effective on December 16, included two daily MacArthur departures to Ft. Lauderdale-Flight KW 31 at 1245 and Flight KW 35 at 2035; one to Tampa, Flight KW 41 at 1110; and one to West Palm Beach, Flight KW 33 at 1835.

Yet its life would only span a decade. Mid-1990 fuel prices and Carnival Cruise Lines’ overambitious purchase of its Fantasy and Destiny classes of ships during the same period left little additional revenue to keep the carrier in the air, and it appeared an attractive takeover by the reincarnated Pan American Airways, which ultimately purchased it. The torch of Carnival Air Lines’ Long Island MacArthur Airport Florida service was subsequently passed to Pan Am when it fell under its umbrella.

The second carrier to sport its name, whose brand was acquired by an investment group, once again arose from the ashes to the sky in September of 1996, when a single Airbus A300, dubbed “Clipper Fair Wind,” inaugurated service on what was intended as a low-cost, US domestic and Caribbean route network.

Led by Martin Shugrue, Pan Am’s last Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer, Pan Am Corporation, its holding company, purchased Carnival the following September. Yet its rapid expansion, placing costs ahead of profits, only caused it, like so many other phoenix-rising airlines, to declare bankruptcy–in this case in February of 1998.

Although the interval was brief, 737-400s wearing the once-proud Pan American World Airways’ blue cheat line and vertical tail adorned globe did alight on Long Island.

Nevertheless, Carnival/Pan Am had considerably developed the Florida market with five daily departures to Orlando, Tampa, West Palm Beach, and Ft. Lauderdale.

Two other carriers had competed with it-AirTran in 1994 and USAir to Orlando in 1995.

As the Boeing 717’s launch customer, AirTran Airways itself traced its origins to predecessor ValuJet, which itself was founded by former Southern Airways and Eastern Airlines personnel to fill the void in Atlanta after the latter’s demise, inaugurating service on October 26, 1993 with two former Delta DC-9-30s between Atlanta and Tampa. Its MD-95 launch order would have made it the youngest airline to claim the title. It had posted a $67 million net profit on $367 million in revenues.

AirTran Airways, a low-fare carrier founded by AirTran Corporation shortly before this time, served 24 eastern and midwestern destinations with 11 737-200s from an Orlando hub.

Merging with ValuJet on November 17, 1997, it retained its name, but adopted ValuJet’s Atlanta hub, operating 227 daily departures to 45 cities with 31 DC-9-30s and the 11 737-200s by the following summer.

Next to enter the Florida fray was Delta Express, a low-fare, limited-service division of Delta Air Lines that was created to operate single-class, 119-passenger 737-200s on leisure routes. Because of its main carrier association, it attracted very high load factors.

Commencing service in 1998, it flew to Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale.

Another Florida service provider was Spirit Airlines, which appeared on the MacArthur ramp with its MD-80s and MD-87s in November of 1998.

Of significant size, stature, and longevity, however, was Southwest Airlines, which became instrumental in sparking Islip growth.

Selected, after a two-year search for a third northeast city to serve after Manchester, New Hampshire, and Providence, Rhode Island, MacArthur joined a list of six potential secondary airports, including Newburgh’s Stewart International, White Plains’ Westchester Country, Connecticut’s Harford and New Haven, Trenton Mercy County, and New Jersey’s Teterboro, the latter of which never fielded commercial operations. Because of the 1.6 million living within the vicinity of Islip, local business health, and its “underserved, overpriced air service,” which, according to then-Southwest Chief Executive Officer, Herb Kelleher, was “ripe for competition,” Long Island MacArthur most filled its requirements.

Lacking sufficient space for the intended operation, however, it was subsequently subjected to a $13 million renovation, which entailed a 62,000-square-foot terminal expansion and an extension of the existing short-term parking lot.

Service inauguration, initially employing two Southwest-dedicated gates, occurred on March 14, 1999 with 12 daily 737-700 departures, including eight to Baltimore, two to Chicago-Midway, one to Nashville, and one to Tampa, all of which provided through or connecting service to 29 other carrier-served destinations. Islip was the 53rd city in its 27th state. Florida, admittedly, was little more than a footnote at this stage, but that would change. And the other two Long Island-sunshine state linking airlines continued to expand during the last two months of the decade.

On November 20, 1999, for example, Spirit Airlines inaugurated nonstop Orlando service, marking its seventh daily one to five Florida cities, while Delta Express followed suit with its own inaugural to Tampa 11 days later on December 1, equally resulting in seven daily MacArthur departures when combined with its four existing ones to Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale.

Three airlines thus offered 15 daily flights to five Florida destinations: seven Delta Express 737-200s to Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, and Tampa; one Southwest 737-700 to Tampa, and seven Spirit MD-80s to Ft. Lauderdale, Ft. Myers, Orlando, Tampa, and West Palm Beach.

2000’s:

The next decade was categorized by airline exit and entry and schedule and frequency adjustments, but Florida-bound passenger counts continued to climb.

In January of 2000, for instance, Spirit Airlines and Delta Express respectively carried 41,804 and 29,865 passengers, 91- and 44-percent increases over the year-earlier period.

By February, with Southwest’s addition of a second Tampa frequency and the inauguration of an Orlando route, daily Florida departures rose to 17.

By mid-year-specifically August 6-Southwest introduced seven additional flights from Islip, including a third daily one to Nashville and new service to Providence, Jacksonville, and Ft. Lauderdale, resulting in a daily quintet reach with its existing single rotation to Orlando and dual rotations to Tampa.

In the first six months of the year, it carried 447,000 passengers. The comparable Spirit and Delta Express totals, which only entailed Florida routes, were 240,286 and 210,000.

But the pull of a larger New York airport-in this case, La Guardia-changed MacArthur’s triplet of sunshine state serving airlines. Spirit, which already dispatched five daily aircraft to three destinations from the Manhattan-proximity field, entirely relocated there on September 4 in order to take advantage of 20 newly acquired slots, demonstrating deregulation’s underlying freedom of allowing carriers to freely enter and exit a market and exemplifying, at least in this case, that the secondary Long Island facility was used when capacity at a primary New York one was unavailable.

Slot availability became the third reason why a Florida carrier discontinued service there. Aggressive expansion beyond its inceptional, low-fare, competition-devoid niche with widebody aircraft, as had occurred with Northeastern, proved the first, while a merger with a debt-ridden airline, coupled with deviations from its northeast-Florida traffic flow, as had occurred with Carnival, was the second.

Because of Spirit’s autumn exodus, Long Island MacArthur recorded a 6.9-percent passenger decrease in the fourth quarter of 2000.

As 2001 dawned, the promise of Spirit replacement service to cater to unrelenting demand hung in the air and it was delivered on August 5. While a third Southwest departure to Chicago-Midway was introduced, a reduction, from three to two, in Nashville frequencies enabled it to link Long Island with West Palm Beach for the first time in September, resulting in six daily departures to the five Florida cities of Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, West Palm Beach, and Ft. Lauderdale, and 23 overall.

Delta Express was the next carrier to exit stage-left. A second Delta Air Lines subsidiary, Song, intended to more effectively compete with low-cost carriers such as JetBlue and Southwest with larger, 199-seat 757-200s, was deemed inappropriate for the Long Island market and was created to replace smaller Delta Express with its 25-strong, 119-passenger 737-200 fleet. As those aircraft were retired, both destinations and frequencies decreased.

In 2001, for instance, it carried 290,000 passengers from Islip, down from its 539,500-peak, but this figure was reduced to a fourth the following year with 77,500. In July of 2003, the Delta division entirely disappeared.

Southwest once again stepped up to the plate. On September 4, 2002, it offered one additional flight to both Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale.

Exercising incumbent clout, it had thus replaced Northeastern, Eastern, Braniff, Carnival, Pan Am, Spirit, and Delta Express to Ft. Lauderdale; Northeastern, Eastern, Braniff, Carnival, Pan Am, AirTran, Spirit, Delta Express, and USAir to Orlando; and Northeastern (St. Petersburg), Carnival, Pan Am, Spirit, and Delta Express to Tampa.

Its triumph, illustrating its strong financial position, was the result of its ability to gain market share released by weaker carriers during challenging economic times, fostering its own growth at the expense of another’s retrenchment.

Southwest’s Florida penetration continued. By March of 2002, it operated eight daily flights, including one to Jacksonville, two to Orlando, two to Tampa, one to West Palm Beach, and two to Ft. Lauderdale. Three and a half years later, with an October 5, 2005 Ft. Myers addition, its daily dispatch had almost doubled: five to Orlando, one to Ft. Myers, three to Tampa, three to West Palm Beach, and three to Ft. Lauderdale for a total of 15..

After another three-year interval, a once-familiar tenet reappeared on the MacArthur tarmac. Citing ease of access and lack of congestion, and incentivized by a 50-percent landing fee reduction during its first year of operation, Spirit Airlines, this time operating next-generation Airbus A319s, re-introduced two daily round trips to Ft. Lauderdale on May 1, 2008 with $7.00 introductory fares. Connections could be made to 23 Caribbean and Latin American destinations through its south Florida hub.

Teresa Rizzuto, who assumed now-retired Al Werner’s Commission for Aviation and Transportation at MacArthur positon, commented at the time, “Mid-sized airports are the fastest growing sector in commercial aviation. And in that group, we’ve had some of the fastest growth. New York City’s airports are maxed out.”

Offering competitive Ft. Lauderdale service with Southwest, Spirit’s two daily flights were projected to generate some $300,000 in annual airport revenues derived from parking fees, car rentals, and other concessions.

Marking Islip’s first regularly scheduled Airbus Industrie operation, the twin-engine A319 touched down on Runway 06 at 0954, taxiing through a dual fire truck created water arch to the gate before redeparting at 1030 as Flight 833 with a high load factor. The three-hour sector saw it touch down in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida’s Venice with its Intracoastal Waterways, at 1330. The second frequency, Flight 837, departed at 1925 and arrived at 2225.

Both were part of Spirit’s more than 200 systemwide flights to 43 destinations. But the weak flicker of Long Island light they provided was doused fever than three months later when escalating fuel prices and declining economic conditions forced their discontinuation on July 31, leaving a fading promise of return, for a third time, when more advantageous circumstances merited them. They never did.

2010’s:

The fourth decade of Long Island MacArthur Airport’s Florida service brought equally unrealized promises, but ultimate hope.

Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, an ultra-low fare airline serving vacation markets from secondary airports, foresaw the need to connect Long Island with Florida’s west coast-in this case, with another secondary airport, Punta Gorda, which was an alternative to Ft. Myers. Islip was its 99th city that served one of 14 leisure destinations.

Designated Flight 999, the December 20, 2013 inaugural service, occurring on the threshold of the traditional winter period, was operated with a 166-passenger MD-80 and departed at 1920 local time. Fares for the twice weekly round trips were $69.00 one way or $99.00 return.

Although they were discontinued on May 14 of the following year with the intention of being reinstated during the winter 2014-2015 period, they never were.

Elite Airways was the next carrier to taxi up to a MacArthur gate with the intention of serving another secondary Florida city-in this case, Melbourne.

Founded in 2016 and certified as a Part 121 air carrier, it located its headquarters in Portland, Maine, but its maintenance, crew training, sales, and marketing departments took root in its intended destination. Offering, as reflected by its name, a quality travel experience, it operated an all-regional jet fleet, consisting of a single 50-passenger CRJ-100, five 50-passenger CRJ-200s, and five 70-passenger CRJ-700s, offering charter services and transporting college and professional sports teams, executives, and VIPs for the first half-dozen years of its existence before undertaking scheduled flights.

These, in the northeast-to-Florida corridor, included Portland and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as well as Melbourne, an identity echoed in its slogan of “Melbourne’s hometown airline.”

Like that of Allegiant Air, it was twice weekly-in this case, on Friday and Sunday-and seasonal, with $149.00 introductory fares, when its inaugural CRJ-700 departed Long Island soil on June 17, 2016.

Seasonal, as had already been demonstrated, could by synonymous with suspicious-of its return. Elite did and did not. The expected January 5 to February 16, 2017 suspension did precede a reappearance, but the second, between April and July of that year, did not.

Instead, it would be 16 months, or not until September 6, 2018, that it once again transported passengers, this time on two weekly, Thursday and Sunday, CRJ-200s to Melbourne, whose rotations entailed an 0800 departure and a 1045 arrival as Flight 7Q 21 and a northbound return at 1600 and alight at 1845 as Flight 7Q 24.

Although it offered Long Island originators one-stop service to Bimini, Bahamas, its low load factors prompted its permanent departure.

Hope came in the form of Denver-based Frontier Airlines in May of 2017 when it announced $39.00 introductory, unbundled fares on its intended Islip-Orlando sector. Part of its latest strategy of doubling its size over the next five years, Islip was one of 21 new destinations it added to the 61 it already served. Contrasted to New York’s La Guardia Airport, from which it already operated, Long Island MacArthur was devoid of road and passenger terminal congestion and had more than adequate airport facilities, inclusive of check-in counters, gates, and ramp space.

Its inaugural flight, operated by an Airbus A320 that landed at 0936 on August 16, 2017 and was greeted with a water curtain, became the outbound F9 1779, which was off the blocks at 1045. The return, F9 1778, was scheduled to land at 2155.

Frontier’s dual-phase Islip expansion entailed inaugural services to Ft. Myers, Miami, New Orleans, Tampa, and West Palm Beach two months later, on October 5, and Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis on April 9, 2018, all operated with 150-passenger A319s, 186-passenger A320s, and 230-passenger A321s.

Because of the ultra-low fare nature of its operations, which required high load factors not always achievable at MacArthur, it immediately planned season frequency adjustments, destination substitutions, and altogether eliminations, leaving airport officials and passengers alike to wonder if Frontier would become just another fly-by-night carrier. But this was not necessarily the case.

Toward the Next Decade:

After 22 months of service from Islip, Frontier Airlines carried its one millionth passenger from it in June of 2019, making it the fastest growing of the three current carriers (Southwest and American Eagle included) and the airport itself the fastest growing domestic hub as defined by the Department of Transportation.

In terms of Frontier, it transported 536,000 round trip passengers in 2018 or 33 percent of MacArthur’s 1.6 million total. In terms of the airport itself, its available airline seats, filled or otherwise, escalated from 1.70 million in 2017 to 2.17 million in 2018, itself a 27.6-percent increase, its three tenant airlines having provided more annual capacity than that of any year since 2010.

Although seating marginally increased after American Eagle substituted 50-passenger ERJ-145s for its previous 37-passenger DHC-8-100 turboprops and Southwest replaced some 737-700 departures with larger 737-800 ones, most of these encouraging figures resulted from Frontier’s high-density configured A320 family flights to Florida.

An additional 38 weekly round trips to Ft. Myers, Tampa, and West Palm Beach, scheduled for the winter 2019-2020 season, offered a hopeful indication that Frontier was there to stay.

In December of 2019, or one month before the turn of the next decade, 12 daily departures were offered to five sunshine state destinations by two airlines: one to Ft. Lauderdale, three to Orlando, one to Tampa, and two to West Palm Beach by Southwest; and one each to Ft. Lauderdale, Ft. Myers, Orlando, Tampa, and West Palm Beach by Frontier.

Like a deregulation-created storm of airline entry and exit, frequency and schedule changes, route additions and discontinuations, competition, and fare wars, Long Island MacArthur Airport has weathered four decades of uncertainty and instability. But because of unrelenting demand, nonstop Florida service was always offered by one airline or another, and, in most cases, by several at once.