Long Island MacArthur Airport - A Failed Expansion Plan, and What's Next

Long Island MacArthur Airport is a commercial service and GA airport located in central Suffolk County on LI serving around 1.3 million passengers a year. Before we get into this write-up, I’ll briefly describe the early history of ISP.

MacArthur was formed in 1942 around the same time many airports were popping up across the U.S. for military use. It was named after General Douglas MacArthur.
In 1960, Allegheny Airlines became the first airline to offer scheduled passenger service to ISP. It offered nonstop service to Washington and Baltimore and service to Boston with stops. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, more airlines began offering commuter service out of ISP to destinations in the northeast.
In 1971, American Airlines introduced 727 service nonstop to Chicago. During the 70’s, the commuter airlines added more destinations on jets. During the 80’s and 90’s legacy airlines like USAir, United, Continental, Continental Connection, Spirit, Delta Express, and Eastern offered mainline and regional service to numerous destinations in addition to the commuter airlines. You can read more about that here.


Now back to the point of the thread.

In 1999, Southwest Airlines started service to MacArthur with the intent of the airport being their NYC gateway, despite the airport being at least an hour’s drive from Manhattan. They introduced daily flights to Baltimore, Chicago, Nashville, and Tampa.
During the next few years the airline continued to expand at ISP. Adding frequencies, and more destinations like Providence, Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas, Orlando, and West Palm Beach. They got rid of the Providence and Jacksonville flights, but compensated by adding flights to Las Vegas, and increasing frequencies on existing flights.
They were operating out of a tiny, falling apart, cramped 3 gate terminal. It was clear they needed to expand.


The tiny 3-gate terminal. Photo Source

In 2001, Southwest and the Town of Islip announced plans to build a new 4-gate modern terminal. These plans were slated to start in late 2001, however the 9/11 attacks pushed them back.

The new terminal under construction in late 2003. Source

In August 2004, Southwest opened their new modern $51 million dollar 4-gate concourse, that was entirely paid for by Southwest. Southwest, which was operating around 26 daily flights out of the airport, predicted that number could more than double in a few years and needed even more space. The next part of the project tore down the old 3 gate terminal and added another 4-gate terminal. That part of the project was completed in 2006.

Early morning in the new terminal, before it got crowded. Photo source

In November 2006, Southwest was operating 33 daily flights out of ISP to LAS, BWI, MCO, MDW, FLL, TPA, RSW, and PBI. While significant, this is clearly less than the 50+ daily flights that were predicted.
Over the next 2 years, flights at MacArthur began to slowly decline. Continental Connection had ended their flights to Cleveland and Albany in 2005. Delta Connection ended their service to Cincinnati in 2004 when the airline went bankrupt. In 2008, Delta Connection ended their flight to Atlanta, citing low passenger loads. Spirit briefly resumed service to FLL but ended it shortly after they started it. There are a bunch of factors that contributed to the decrease of flights at ISP:

  • Corruption - at the time, the Town of Islip running the airport did not run the airport very properly. The new terminal was built without following fire and emergency codes, and without state approval, which led to a scandal. Besides that, the Town of Islip did not do a good job at trying to get more flights
  • Recession - In 2008-2009, the number of flights at Islip really took a plunge, as did flights across the country, especially at mid-size airports similar to ISP.
  • Southwest starting service at LGA - MacArthur was really intended to be Southwest’s entry into the NYC market. When slots opened up at LaGuardia in 2009, Southwest jumped at them.

Southwest ended their once 2x daily flights to Las Vegas at Islip, and eventually in 2011 ended their Chicago-Midway flights from Islip and added more flights at LaGuardia. They ended their seasonal RSW flights a few years back.

However, in 2013, when Southwest was approaching a point in their 25-year lease where they could choose to walk away from the airport, they chose to stay at Islip. In 2004, they signed a 25-year lease at their terminal.

Before COVID they were down to only 14 daily flights out of ISP to Baltimore, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, and West Palm Beach. While that number is comfortable, it is a clear let-down of the once-proposed 50+ daily flights. After the morning rush, if you take a walk through the terminal, you will most likely find it to be close to empty unless there is a flight arriving/departing.
Southwest has not added any new destination out of MacArthur since the mid 2000’s, over 15 years ago. Before COVID, American Airlines had 3 daily flights to Philadelphia on an E145, and Frontier had on average 5-6 daily flights to various destinations.

The following photos are mine.

Coming off a flight from FLL in the middle of the day.

The center of the terminal on Memorial Day weekend in 2017. You’d really think there would be more people!

Gates A3-A4 which Southwest never uses, looking down towards gates A2-A1.


Current Day ISP

Southwest operates out of gates A5-A8. They own gates A1-A4, lease A1 to American, and just never operate out of A2-A4. They haven’t used these gates in the last 6-7 years except on very rare occasions.

Frontier operates out of gates B17, B19, and B23 in concourse B. Concourse B is not in very good shape. It is far from security, and has no restaurant options. It is small and cramped. I believe there may be plans to upgrade it, but I am not 100% sure.

I took these pictures before Frontier started at ISP in 2017. I believe they changed things around a bit and added chairs after these pictures, but even then when there are flights going out of here it gets very cramped and people are standing around.

Frontier operates year-round service to Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and West Palm Beach. They operate seasonal service to Raleigh/Durham and Myrtle Beach. Nonstop daily year-round service to Las Vegas is scheduled to begin in March 2021!

The terminal can be bustling one minute, and then 30-45 minutes later it goes deserted again for another few hours.


What’s next?

IMO, I would like to see Southwest add back some flights to ISP, maybe even a few new destinations like MDW, SJU, and LAS. I don’t expect them to go back to their golden days of almost 40 daily flights, but it would be nice to see some activity.
I hope Frontier can keep all their current destinations and maybe even add a few more, take DEN for example.
I’d also love to see Delta come back to ISP. A few daily RJ’s to ATL and DTW would be awesome.
I have no clue why American doesn’t add more destinations at ISP. CLT has been highly requested for a while, and I really think they can make it work on a CRJ or even an E175. Also, this might be a bit of a long shot but ORD.

The main runway, runway 6/24 is 7,000 feet long. This is enough for the flight to LAS, but I feel if they expanded it buy adding a displaced threshold they could easily get flights to the West Coast.

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Great read! It’s sad to see an airport failing like that. I hope they can expand a bit and maybe be a competitor for the big three airports in NYC as a “vacation destination.”

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Interesting read! Hopefully the Post-Covid world will bring more people that are avoiding crowds here. Would certainly like to fly to this airport someday.

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Agreed. There is also a business base on Long Island. I feel if the legacy carries added more flights to hubs they could win over some of the business crowd not wanting to travel to/from JFK/LGA. But MacArthur is great for Long Islanders who don’t want to brave the city traffic when heading to vacation, and currently businessmen have the opportunity to transfer in Philadelphia on AA or BWI on WN. I feel adding more connection spots like Chicago, Charlotte, etc. would do wonders for the business community. There’s definitely also a market for nonstop flights, as many people here have business in those cities or family there.
For the most part, Frontier is a vacation airline and the business people are willing to pay a bit more for the legacies and Southwest.

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ISP is my favorite NY airport. It is small cute, but cramped. I’ve flown to all 4 NY airports and this one has got to be my favorite. It’s sad to see it decline that way but it’s got that new route to Las Vegas which is super exciting. Great post!

Stewart Airport has joined the party.


In all seriousness (I’ve only been to JFK - lame, right?), I think the airport has the capacity and the ability to expand. Just don’t see the market and the demand from the public, especially since everyone only knows JFK, LGA, and EWR. Hoping to see this airport shine, but I’m afraid it may not be able to.

I think it will be able to, just needs the right airlines. So many LIers would prefer ISP in a heartbeat as it’s a million times more convenient than the city airports, but the #1 thing keeping many people from using the airport is lack of flights. The market is definitely there it needs to be added wisely.

In 2019, Islip to Chicago Midway saw an average Passengers Daily Each Way of 142, or around 51,830 passengers during the year, making it the third largest unserved domestic route in the United States.

I wouldn’t be surprised to possibly see it return one day, or like you said, possibly on American to ORD with a small aircraft

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Wow! Does that number include passengers connecting to other destinations, or just one-way with their itineraries ISP-MDW and ending at MDW?

The latter. It’s pure demand without the external connections.

Wow!! Southwest should definitely get in on that then once they add more flights. With the possible connections in MDW I think it could definitely work.

O wait I think I messed it up lol

71 passengers each way. PDEW counts both ways so gotta divide by 2.

Ahhh ok. Still, I think it would be worth giving it a try. Would lure back some people that are driving into the city for nonstops to Chicago, and open up Chicago for connections. If they have MHT-MDW and BOS-MDW, I think ISP-MDW could work in addition to LGA-MDW.

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