Decision time at MacArthur; The airport is a regional asset, and Islip must be a careful steward

Long Island MacArthur Airport is more than a convenient alternative to Kennedy and LaGuardia for trips to Florida. It's vital to the economic health of the Town of Islip and the whole region. Right now, it's at a hinge moment, and the town must make some smart decisions.

Its long-time commissioner, Al Werner, is retiring after more than a half-century, a period when the airport grew far busier and bigger. At the same time, a task force appointed by Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan has completed its report on the airport, finding it safe and financially self-sufficent, but in need of a broader revenue base.

The airport came into focus last year, with Newsday stories about cracks in the apron, the area near the gates at the expanded Southwest Airlines terminal. Despite that, the task force found the airport has "an excellent safety record."

At a press conference yesterday, Nolan said he is starting a search for Werner's successor. That leader will have a lot of work to do to keep the airport economically vibrant, by tapping revenue from such sources as WiFi and cell towers on airport grounds, and by adding to the destinations that the airport's airlines serve.

The report said that commercial carriers at MacArthur have dwindled to three, the lowest in decades, and that Southwest Airlines accounts for 92 percent of the still-rising number of passengers. That heavy a reliance on one carrier seems risky.

So, while the town needs to maintain a good relationship with Southwest, Nolan is wisely pursuing an expression of interest by Ryanair, a European carrier with much the same profile as Southwest. With the lighter, less noisy planes that Ryanair uses, the carrier could feasibly use Islip for flights to and from Europe.

Nolan has had talks with Helena Williams, the new president of the Long Island Rail Road, about a smoother link between the airport and the Ronkonkoma station. That would help the town make its case to Ryanair.

MacArthur is too important to Long Island to stand still. So the town must pick the best possible leader to put in place a smart image and development strategy to help the airport soar to the next level.