FRENCHVILLE, Maine — Maine’s newest airline took flight Thursday with media events at the Northern Aroostook Regional Airport and at the Portland International Jetport.
While its first passengers were largely on board for the Portland to Frenchville flight for public relations purposes, New England Air Transport — or NEAT, for short — begins regular round trip services with its first paying customers Tuesday, Sept. 30.
“The theme for what we’ve been doing all along is connectivity,” David Fernald Sr., NEAT president, said after a luncheon in the Frenchville hangar Thursday. “We wanted to give people the option of flying in and out of northern Maine for the same price as driving, and I think we’ve found it.”
Currently, for those wanting to get to or from the St. John Valley to Portland, it’s a six-hour one-way drive, a quarter of which is over two-lane rural roads heavily populated by moose and deer.
Starting Tuesday, NEAT offers two round trips daily on Tuesdays and Thursdays originating in Frenchville with stops in Presque Isle, Augusta and Portland.
The first flight of the day leaves the valley at 5:30 a.m. with the last return flight departing Portland at 6 p.m. Roundtrip fares begin at $369 with a 14-day advance purchase.
“Our meetings don’t often take us to Portland, but they certainly take us to Augusta,” St. Agatha Town Manager Ryan Pelletier said. “Whenever we can use them, we will.”
Currently, if Pelletier must travel downstate, he said the cost can run more than $400 per trip with mileage, an overnight at a hotel and meals.
“Right now, flying on [NEAT] is cheaper than driving,” he said.
NEAT passengers fly on a seven-passenger Piper Chieftain twin-engine airplane.
Chief Pilot David Fernald Jr. has more than 2,000 hours of logged flight time, including 450 hours with multi-engine aircraft.
“The first thing I wanted to do when I met young David was check his driver’s license,” Jim Thibodeau, NEAT partner, said. “He looks 15 years old, [but] he’s an excellent pilot and I would fly with him anytime.”
Fernald Jr. is actually 23 and said flying the Piper Chieftain is a joy.
“It’s a lot of fun to fly,” he said as he went through his preflight checklist. “I always thought this airline would come to life.”
Over the past several years close to $6 million of mostly federal funds have been spent on the Northern Aroostook Regional Airport upgrading facilities and the runway.
NEAT officials were disappointed to learn earlier this month a $350,000 grant from the Small Airport Development Fund had been turned down largely because of NEAT’s proximity to the Northern Maine Regional Airport in Presque Isle’s business market.
But they remain optimistic about the venture.
“We started out with the idea of this airline without the grant,” Fernald Sr. said. “The reality is we will just have to work harder to make this work.”
The elder Fernald and potential passengers have no doubt it will work.
“We are all about connectivity,” Jeffrey Nevins, public relations manager for FairPoint Communications out of Portland, said. “We connect people, we connect businesses and we connect community. NEAT will help us connect.”
Nevins, along with representatives from Time Warner Cable and several members of the Fernald family were on board the flight from Portland yesterday morning.
FairPoint has committed $5,000 in cash up front to the small airline with the promise of purchasing an additional $5,000 in fares this year.
Time Warner has committed to purchase seats on four to eight flights between now and December.
“We want our management team to come up as often as possible to connect with our people and customers up here,” Catalina Mehler, Time Warner Cable executive assistant to the division president, said. “We want to be part of local events, and that would not be possible without these flights.”
Catering to that business clientele is a big part of NEAT’s overall mission. Fernald Sr. views the regular flights as economic development opportunities for business developers from both ends of the state interested in establishing a presence in northern Maine.
NEAT is also looking to market to medical patients in need of nonemergency care in southern Maine and to in-state vacationers.
For the Fernalds, NEAT is a family affair.
In addition to David Sr., who is also the manager of the Frenchville airport, and his son behind the plane’s controls, Pat Fernald, David Sr.’s wife, is the self-described “executive go-fer” and is excited about the airline’s potential.
“This will be a great benefit to the valley,” she said as she worked the controls for the hand-operated towing dolly used to position the Piper Chieftain on the tarmac. “Benefiting this area was our goal all along.”
On board for the maiden flight Thursday was 84-year-old Charlotte Fraser, David Sr.’s mother.
“My grandson is a wonderful pilot,” she said proudly while waiting for the start of the return trip to Portland. “He’s very methodical and checks out everything twice, [and] believe me, I appreciate that.”
For more information on NEAT, go to www.flyneat.com.