On a recent Friday afternoon at Long Island MacArthur Airport, only two people were spotted on the vast second floor of Veterans Concourse—and they were both working there. The cashier, an attractive young woman, was chatting with a male employee resting his arms on a stack of unsold magazines.
“It’s a slow airport,” she smiled.
Not a passenger was in sight.
Downstairs, however, was a different story as men, women and children began lining up before their flights. Their voices rose and fell with anxiety and anticipation, their carry-on baggage added to the growing buzz, whumping and whooshing while being dragged closer to the check-in counter.
It’s a scene repeated in countless airports across America but one that has become a rarer commodity in Islip, unfortunately, because there is trouble in the air at MacArthur.
“We used to have a thriving airport,” says Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci. “We went from having 46 flights a day to 16 flights a day in the past five years. We’ve seen the airport go from four or five airlines to now one and a half, with Southwest and some flights from US Air.”
Besides MacArthur Airport, there is only one other town-owned airport in New York State: the Adirondack Regional Airport in Harrietstown. Questions abound whether Islip’s partisan politics are swirling around the runways like a bad crosswind. The answers come from opposite horizons.
“I think the airport has been neglected in the past five years,” says Croci, a Republican, leaning forward at his conference table in his supervisor’s office at Islip Town Hall, “and I’m looking to do whatever I can to provide all the tools and resources to the commissioner and the airport team to make sure that we increase the number of flights out of that airport and make it an attractive destination and an attractive departure point for Long Islanders—and also for people who want to come and visit New York.”
This week, Croci formally announced the appointment of Terry Hennessey, British Airways manager at Baltimore Washington Marshall International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport, as the new deputy commissioner of the Islip airport.
“Terry is a seasoned professional who has demonstrated his ability to create positive and sustained results in a very demanding environment,” said Teresa Rizzuto, Long Island MacArthur Airport commissioner, in a press release. “I am delighted to welcome him to the team.”
The announcement capped months of speculation about how much longer Commissioner Rizzuto herself may remain on the team, given that the airport—and her role in running it—became a hot button issue in the recent supervisor’s race. Rizzuto’s premature departure could imperil the airport’s ascent after the recession, since she has been in the captain’s seat piloting the airport’s potential growth into new markets with additional airlines.
Rizzuto was picked by Croci’s Democratic predecessor, Phil Nolan, after a three-month nationwide search in 2007. A well-respected administrator, she has won recognition in the aviation industry and numerous awards—as well as a frequent spot on the Long Island Press’s much coveted “Power List.” In fact, MacArthur Airport was the venue for the 2011 gala for the honorees.
Nolan was unsparing in his praise of Rizzuto’s achievements.
“This is a woman, a single mother, who started out in the ’90s as a baggage handler at Kennedy and became one of the first female baggage handlers in the history of the airport,” Nolan says. Soon “she was in charge of all the baggage handlers and several years after that she was running Terminal A at Newark, which is roughly the size of Long Island MacArthur Airport. So she has distinguished herself practically beyond belief in a male-dominated field.”
Rizzuto had literally started at ground level in 1992 at JFK and by 1999 United Airlines had made her general manager of their Newark terminal with a $30 million budget. Four years later, she was also running United’s hub at Washington Dulles International Airport, alternating weeks between New Jersey and D.C.
Hennessey, who’s spent more than 30 years in the aviation industry, has an “excellent” reputation, said a source with broad knowledge of the nation’s airport management system who asked not to be named.
Both the present and the past Islip supervisors agree that the airport known by its acronym LIMA can be an economic engine for our area’s recovery. But in the heat of last fall’s campaign they didn’t see eye to eye at all. At a September meeting of the Long Island Metro Business Action, Croci reportedly referred to Rizzuto as a “glorified baggage handler,” a charge that took off in the partisan atmosphere.
Meeting with the Press last week, Croci was adamant that the “comment was never made the way that it was expressed…it was turned into something.”
Nolan said that Croci’s campaign was so desperate for an issue to use against him that it blamed his administration for the airport’s decline in business when the global recession was the culprit.
“Anyone with a brain in their head…realizes that we run the airport, but we don’t dictate how many customers come to the airport,” Nolan says. “We did everything we can do to let people know we’re here. You have a down economy!”
A 2011 study by the New York State Department of Transportation, citing 2010 data, summarized the situation this way: “The impact of the current national/global economic recession has been significant to the aviation industry nationwide and in New York….Airports in New York State [that were] hit harder by the recession than the national averages include…Long Island MacArthur.”