Southwest cuts flights at Long Island MacArthur Airport

Southwest Airlines plans to ax six flights from Long Island MacArthur Airport by the end of November, citing flagging demand. On the block: two daily runs from Baltimore, three Chicago flights and a Las Vegas nonstop.

The cutbacks come as the airline enters talks with MacArthur officials to find ways to better position the airport and market its ease of use and other amenities, according to Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichienger.

The talks are aimed at "getting to the bottom of why people are not choosing MacArthur," she said.

Significant cutbacks by Southwest would be a disaster for the airport, which is owned by the Town of Islip and, until recently, netted as much as $1.5 million annually in profits.

More than 90 percent of MacArthur passengers arrive or depart via Southwest aircraft and only two other airlines, Delta and US Airways, have operations there.

In fact, attracting new carriers "should be a major focus of management," according to a recently released study of the airport by a task force assembled by Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan.

The study was prompted by projections that the airport will eke out just $300,000 in profit this year. It also recommends better marketing, installing a wireless Internet system in the terminal and making better use of industrial land on the airport's west side.

Al Werner, the airport's longtime commissioner, recently announced plans to retire, and a national search is on for a successor.

Robert Mann, president of the Port Washington airline industry analyst firm RW Mann & Co., said big "hub and spoke" carriers have learned important lessons in recent years and become more cost competitive with Southwest, "sucking business back west to LaGuardia and Kennedy" with frills such as more non-stops and more destinations.

Mann also noted a "huge awareness deficit" about the fact that there's an airport in Islip, but he questioned the potential success of marketing a hassle-free airport to business travelers willing to endure massive inconveniences in order to fly nonstop.

One potential way to boost traffic is to considering branding the airport with a stronger name, much in the way Westchester County Airport has been relabeled New York-White Plains, he said.

While a new "New York-MacArthur Airport" might be good for business, it would, for the first time, drop Long Island from the name. That's not necessarily a problem for people like Nolan, who has complained that the airport has been used as a political valentine for elected officials. That's an obvious reference to former supervisor Pete McGowan, for whom Southwest named its new wing at MacArthur. The name was changed following McGowan's resignation amid charges of misusing political funds.

But Clara Datre, the Republican candidate for supervisor this November, put the blame squarely on Nolan and a cutback in airport marketing.

"Anyone with any business sense knows you have to market this airport," Datre said.