Valley air service hopes to catch on

Posted May 06, 2009, at 9:41 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:48 a.m.

FRENCHVILLE, Maine — There are no moose or frost heaves at 10,000 feet.

That alone helps make the two-hour flight from the St. John Valley to Portland worth the price of a ticket.

Since last fall, New England Air Transport has offered up to four round-trip flights a week originating from the Northern Aroostook Regional Airport in Frenchville to the Portland International Jetport, cutting the nearly seven-hour drive time by two-thirds.

Though ridership has not been quite what the airline’s owners had originally hoped for — on a recent Monday-morning flight there were two passengers heading south and three on the return trip — chief pilot David Fernald Jr. is convinced the advantages of air travel will catch on.

“It’s the idea of changing people’s mindset,” Fernald said from the pilot’s seat as he cruised the seven-passenger Piper Chieftain at 10,000 feet and 204 mph over the Maine landscape. “People are in the habit of driving south for meetings [and] in my mind that is unfortunate not just from our business point of view, but it’s also an inefficient use of their time.”

With flights leaving Frenchville at 6 a.m. Monday-Wednesday, passengers are in Portland by 8 a.m. and can be on a return flight at 5 p.m. that day, having them home in time for a late supper, even with stops in Presque Isle and Augusta, Fernald points out.

A fourth flight leaves at 2:30 p.m. Thursdays from Frenchville and on Mondays there is an 8:30 a.m. flight north from Portland.

NEAT also offers on-demand charter flights.

Fernald’s father, David Fernald Sr., is the airline’s president, and the fledgling business got a boost last year from local businessman and private pilot Jim Thibodeau, who came on board as a joint venture partner.

“To me it makes more sense than driving 12 hours and having to spend the night in Portland just for one meeting or appointment,” Fernald said.

NEAT’s standard one-way fare is $239, and the airline is running a “two-for-one” special good for travel departures on Mondays or Thursdays and requiring one overnight stay.

“If there was some way we could reduce operating costs we would because it makes so much sense to travel by air over driving,” Fernald said.

“We are also talking to medical centers in [Aroostook] County and with doctors in Portland where people go for special treatment to see if we can negotiate some kind of special fare arrangement,” Fernald said.

It’s still a good deal for County residents like Edna Graves, 78, who was on a recent NEAT flight to Portland to receive specialized medical treatment.

“I couldn’t do that drive,” Graves said as she prepared to exit the plane in Portland. “This [flight] was a good ride and a fast ride.”

Though only seven months old, NEAT has its share of frequent fliers like Kevin Simmons, owner of the Presque Isle and Caribou Inn and Convention Centers.

“It’s great,” Simmons said of the airline as he waited to board the plane in Portland. “We’re going to be up in The County in an hour-and-a-half; that sure beats a five-hour drive.”

Simmons, who lives in Portland, has business interests in central Aroostook County and needs to be there on a regular basis.

“With my situation it’s so much easier to fly in and out,” he said. “Though, I don’t mind the drive sometimes, like in the summer.”

Dr. Peter Leong was heading north on NEAT to perform a number of surgical spine procedures on patients in Aroostook County.

“I’ve been doing this for 12 years now,” Leong, who lives on Peaks Island in Portland, said. “I used to fly charters in and out of Augusta.”

Regular service offered by NEAT has simplified his travel, Leong said.

“Now I just roll out of bed in the morning and get on the plane and go,” he said. “Flying the charters I always had to drive to Augusta and we always ended up waiting and waiting for someone.”

Leong said he is trying to convince his medical colleagues of the benefits.

“There are 39 orthopedic surgeons in Portland and zero in Caribou,” he said. “Some drive to work in Bridgton but I tell them it’s quicker to fly north [and work] in Presque Isle.”

For one-day meetings, Northern Maine Community College President Timothy Crowley said NEAT’s service and Fernald’s courtesy are hard to beat.

“I’m careful how I use the service,” Crowley said. “But when I feel my time and resources are better utilized by flying downstate and back the same day, I use it.”

The Piper Chieftain is a comfortable plane capable of handling seven passengers and their luggage. Rental cars are available at both ends of the route for passengers, Fernald points out.

Safety is always job one for the pilot, and though his plane is fully outfitted with de-icers, if the weather looks at all chancy Fernald cancels a flight.

“Most people who fly with me understand if there is a delay or cancellation because of weather,” he said.

The pilot remains optimistic about the future of the small airline.

“I believe if we get someone on our flights once they will see the benefits over driving,” Fernald said. “But the issue is getting them on it that first time.”

Complete schedule and fare information may be found at www.flyneat.com.

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