Long Island MacArthur Airport Commissioner Teresa Rizzuto is being fired from her job by Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci in a departure that had been predicted months ago.
Rizzuto had just flown back from Switzerland after trying to arrange a deal for another airline to come to the town-run facility when she was called into Croci’s office on Monday and was asked to resign. She refused and will instead be terminated next week.
“This isn’t really about her,” says Islip Town spokeswoman Inez Birbiglia. “This is really about [a] change in direction and philosophy with regards to reestablishing the airport to the levels that it once was in 2006 and 2007…. This isn’t about qualification issues or politics. This is truly about seeking someone with a very aggressive growth strategy.”
Birbiglia said Rizzuto’s last day will be Tuesday, when the town board is expected to vote to replace Rizzuto with her deputy commissioner, Terry Hennessey, the former British Airways manager at Baltimore Washington Marshall International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport.
He came on board Islip’s airport in March. The town will then conduct a national search for a permanent replacement.
Rizzuto’s tenure at the airport since she was appointed commissioner in 2007 had become a political issue last fall in the race between then-incumbent Supervisor Phil Nolan, a Democrat, and Croci, his Republican challenger, who ultimately won by 343 votes.
“We went from having 46 flights a day to 16 flights a day in the past five years,” Croci told the Press earlier this year. “We’ve seen the airport go from four or five airlines to now one and a half, with Southwest and some flights from U.S. Air.”
Nolan countered that Rizzuto, a staunch Republican herself, had been doing a very good job despite the recession hitting the airline industry, and the airport was poised to regain market share in the coming months. Indeed, Rizzuto was reportedly working on several potential deals when she got the ax this week.
Ironically, the Long Island Contractors Association presented Rizzuto with a leadership award on Wednesday at their annual dinner in Woodbury.
Rizzuto released a statement Thursday about the move.
“The Supervisor certainly has the right to select people with whom he chooses to work and I respect that,” the statement reads. “It has been an honor to serve as Commissioner for nearly five years where I have been associated with some of the hardest working people in the aviation business.
“The airline industry is in the throes of enormous turmoil, from bankruptcies to consolidation – from fuel spikes to reduced passenger loads,” it continues. “Through it all, the people at Long Island MacArthur have given their all, ensuring that the flying public is always greeted by consummate professionals in a safe environment with state-of-the-art amenities.”
Nolan was sorry to see her go.
“We selected a true professional after a nationwide search,” Nolan tells the Press. “We found a person who was universally respected and did everything in her power to promote the airport. She received great reviews from everybody in the business community and the airline industry that we ever spoke with.”
At a September 2011 meeting of the Long Island Metro Business Action, Croci reportedly referred to Rizzuto as a “glorified baggage handler,” a description that became politically charged in the heat of the campaign. Later he told the Press that “the comment was never made the way that it was expressed… It was turned into something.”
Rizzuto, who had distinguished herself running Terminal A at Newark, was proud of her accomplishments in Islip and was looking forward to making an announcement of a new arrival.
“After nearly four years and especially during the past ten months of lobbying, conferences, presentations and meetings,” Rizzuto said in her statement. “I am confident that we have paved the way for the Croci administration to follow so that at least one new airline may be introduced to MacArthur in the near future.”
In January, JetBlue’s president and chief executive officer, David Barger, toured the facility with Rizzuto, Croci and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY). The airline has made no announcement about whether it plans to add Islip to its itinerary.
“Teresa Rizzuto has been one of the best things to happen to MacArthur Airport in a very long time and I am certain the work she has put in over the last four years will continue to pay dividends for the airport and Long Island for years to come,” Schumer said in a statement. “I wish her nothing but success in her future endeavors.”
-With Christopher Twarowski and Timothy Bolger