05 Jan The History of Northeastern International Airways
Its four-year reign was brief and tumultuous, with a high representing what could have steadily been if ambitions had not exceeded expenses. But perhaps its greatest legacy is that it sparked one of Long Island MacArthur Airport’s development cycles, attracting passengers and, ultimately, other carriers, putting the fledging airfield, which had continually striven for identity and purpose, on the map. The airline had the globe-suggesting name of Northeastern International Airways with the unlikely two-letter code of “QS,” although it never stretched further than the West Coast. And its founder was Stephen L. Quinto.
Born on July 8, 1935 in the Bronx, but raised on Long Island, he could certainly identify with the roots of his eventual enterprise, and his exposure to aviation came before his teenage years, at the age of 12, when his older brother started his own air service. Like father, like son, the saying goes, yet in this case it was closer to “like brother, like brother.”
His brother’s reign, at least characterized by his life, was also brief, since he subsequently succumbed to a military aircraft accident. Despite the tragedy, the event could have been the seed that grew into Quinto’s own aviation undertaking in a turn-pain-into-purpose philosophy.
“I think that probably had a great deal to do with looking at what this business is all about,” he later remarked.
Yet two decades passed before that seed could take root, during which time his pursuits ended in unsuccessful completion.
As honorable as it was, his appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point was a nonevent, because he was too young to legally accept it-by all of seven days! His other educational endeavors, including those at the University of Michigan, New York University, the Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, and Pratt University, were also impressive and at least enabled him to leave a footprint on their campuses, but he walked away without a degree from any of them.
Seeking to escape it all, he moved to France for a decade, but it was on this side of the Atlantic, specifically in England in 1968, that his aviation seed finally sprouted wings with the Sagittair Company he established. It would be the first of three. The last, as already hinted, rose from his home soil of Long Island, emphasized by its inclusion in the name of the very airport that would become its operational base, Long Island MacArthur. Until his airline’s fleet-initially consisting of a single airplane-appeared on its tarmac, no one had heard of it. Then, again, the airport itself was hardly world-renown.
Constructed in 1942 as a result of Congress’s Development of Landing Areas for National Defense (DLAND), it was originally intended as a military facility sparked by the outbreak of World War II and could be used for civil purposes during times of peace. Because it was initially considered an appendage to military aviation, its commercial counterpart was viewed as a segment of the national defense system.
That commercial purpose was realized, albeit in limited form, before the end of the decade when a 5,000-square-foot passenger terminal was constructed and air taxi operator Gateway Airlines commenced scheduled service to Boston, Newark, and Washington with 11-passenger de Havilland Doves and 15-passenger Herons in 1956.
As the long-envisioned reliever airport to JFK and La Guardia, it inched toward this goal ten years later when a more ambitious, 50,000-square-foot oval terminal was built to handle the mostly morning business rush to Albany, Boston, and Washington with USAir BAC-111-200s and DC-9-30s and to Chicago with American Airlines’ 727-100 Astrojets.
Another long-term goal, as revealed by market studies, was the establishment of nonstop Long Island-Florida service to facilitate travel of those wishing to visit their sunshine state retired parents and tap into the tourist trade seeking winter warmth. Airline deregulation and Quinto made both possible.
Leasing a former Evergreen International DC-8-50, registered N800EV, and operating it in a single-class, 185-passenger configuration, he inaugurated Long Island MacArthur (Islip)-Ft. Lauderdale service on February 11, 1982, charging low, unrestricted fares. As an intercontinental aircraft, its relatively low fuel uplift, combined with a full passenger and baggage complement, enabled it to use 5,186-foot Runway 33-Left, from which it climbed out over Lake Ronkonkoma and departed Long Island over its South Shore, while complementary soft drinks and snack baskets of peanuts, cheese and crackers, sandwiches, and fresh fruit were served in the cabin. Checked baggage was included in the fare.
The initial schedule entailed four weekly rotations to Ft. Lauderdale and a single one to Orlando, although a second aircraft, registered N801EV, made increased frequencies and destinations possible.
In its first year of operations, it carried more than 150,000 passengers and ended the period on a high note by transporting a monthly record of 32,075 in December, a figure attributed to weather-caused, Florida-bound flight cancellations at the major New York airports and the subsequent bus transfer of stranded flyers to Islip.
The Long Island airport’s own statistics were also promising, with 3,071 annual air carrier movements and 250,406 passengers in 1982, since it could now boast three pure-jet operators after American and USAir.
Quinto attributed his carrier’s initial success to the trusted and proven concepts of service quality and low, unrestricted fares, along with filling a market gap that had been hungry for years. For this reason, Northeastern adopted the slogan of “:A lot of airline for a little money” and, because it served the hometown airport of MacArthur, eliminating the commute to either JFK or La Guardia for eastern Nassau and Suffolk County residents, it also toted, “We’re one step closer to home.”
Although its corporate headquarters was located in Ft. Lauderdale, Long Island remained its operational base. After leasing two 128-passenger former Pan Am 727-100s, which were draped in pink and blue cloud liveries, it offered seven daily departures from Islip to Ft. Lauderdale itself, Hartford, Miami, Orlando, and St. Petersburg, which was a secondary airport to Tampa. Nonstop flights were also offered from the Connecticut airfield.
Low-fare, deregulation-sparked momentum, once initiated, could not be arrested. The following year, which entailed the acquisition of three longer-range DC-8-62s-including N752UA from United Air Leasing, OY-KTE from Thai Airways International, and N8973U from Arrow Air-saw service to 11 destinations and the annual transport of just under 600,000 passengers.
Long Island MacArthur Airport, with which it was inextricably tied, also reaped financial reward, recording 6,597 air carrier movements and a 546,996-passenger throughput in 1983.
Yet, deviating from its thus far successful strategy and ignoring the tried-and-true “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy, Northeastern elected to tackle the big boys at airports such as JFK and acquire widebody aircraft, ultimately operating transcontinentally. The widebodies themselves came in the form of four Airbus A300B2s in 314-passenger single-class, eight-abreast configurations: D-AIAD from Lufthansa in January (1984), D-AIAE from Lufthansa in February, F-ODRD from Airbus Industrie in May, and F-ODRE from Airbus Financial Services, also in May. It became the second US airline after Eastern to operate the European type.
The strategy may have elevated the low-cost carrier with Long Island roots to a big player, but its overexpansion was defeated by insufficient cash flow. Although it had earned $64.7 million in revenues in its fiscal year ended on March 31, 1984, it recorded a $5.2 million loss.
Its nonfinancial statistics told another story. By the summer, it operated 66 daily flights to 17 US destinations with a three-type, 16-strong fleet, including 727-200s from the likes of Mexicana de Aviacion and VASP, and employed 1,600 personnel. During the first half of the year, it recorded the highest load factor, of 71.5 percent, of any US airline, and in May became the 18th largest as measured by revenue passenger miles.
Its June 1984 system timetable encompassed Boston, Ft. Lauderdale, Hartford, Islip, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York-JFK, Oklahoma City, Orlando, St. Petersburg, San Diego, Tulsa, and West Palm Beach.
Although Long Island MacArthur was still its flight base, New Orleans had become its principle hub, with service to 15 cities. The large-capacity A300s were deployed on the east coast from JFK to Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, and Orlando and on the one-stop southern transcontinental one from Miami to Los Angles via New Orleans itself.
Yet gravity was not the only element to cause an airborne object to descend, even those with wings. Finances equally provided-or, in this case, nullified-lift, sparking a rapid descent. Another $4.4 million was lost during the third quarter that ended on September 30, 1984 and with it began the survival-mode strategy of eliminating aspects which could no longer be monetarily supported, including the layoff of 450 employees and the return-it was actually a repossession-of the A300 fleet.
Viewing his once rapidly rising carrier as a jigsaw puzzle, Quinto attempted to keep its picture whole without its forcibly removed pieces and replace them with what he could scrounge. Ten former Braniff 727-200s, which were vitally needed to quench the thirst of the winter sun-seeking market during the 1984-1985 season, were promising replacements. However, a Dallas judge ruled that this sublease of airplanes and crew would have violated the terms of Braniff’s own bankruptcy reorganization agreement.
Like plugs pulled from Northeastern’s rapid rise, the lights outlining its structure blacked out. Destinations were eliminated, reservation lines were severed, flights were cancelled, bills were not paid, and passengers were left stranded. And on January 3, 1985, the three-year, low-cost carrier fell to the same fate as Braniff, filing for Chapter 11 in a Miami Bankruptcy Court with $28 million in assets and $48 million in liabilities. It owed some $15 million to more than a thousand unsecured creditors and could no longer meet its employee payroll.
“I don’t know who to blame,” Quinto told reporters at the time. “All I can tell you is that we have an awful lot of paper, but no cash.”
Northeastern never rose to its former, but brief glory again, although Quinto gave heart and soul trying. Likened to a “junkyard dog,” he made continual effort to piece scraps together and keep his enterprise airborne, which he did sporadically, despite the bankruptcy filing.
A single no-frills flight, from Islip to Ft. Lauderdale at a $69.00 fare, strung an aerial thread down the east coast, but with gradual regrowth, the four major Florida cities of Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, St. Petersburg, and West Palm Beach were linked to Chicago as well as Islip and Philadelphia, albeit for a $20.00 higher fare, until the plug was once again pulled in March, when it missed an aircraft lease payment.
Four months ensued before it was in the sky again, on June 21, serving the familiar Florida routes with 727-200s leased from United, although some sectors were sporadically operated by All Star Airlines and Emerald Air DC-9s on its behalf.
But its market had been intermittently lost. Confidence was lost. Airplanes were lost. And its fares, as low as $49.00 to compete with the more established, familiar-name carriers, could hardly sustain it.
The last glimmer of hope came at the end of the year with a $1 million loan and the lease of a single MD-82 from Alisarda, registered HB-IKL. Yet its final light was doused in early 1986, drowned by liquidation, but not necessarily on the Long Island airport that had spawned it and to which its legacy had been left.
Attracting interest, passengers, and other airlines, with 10,750 air carrier movements and 810,751-passenger totals in 1984, Northeastern’s last full year of operations, it had demonstrated the airport’s market potential, serving as the catalyst to its growth and never again leaving it without the all-important Long Island-Florida aerial link, which was subsequently provided by a dozen other airlines, including AirTran, Allegiant, Braniff (III), Carnival, Delta Express, Eastern, Elite, Frontier, Pan Am, Southwest, Spirit, and USAir.