The commercial airline serving Bar Harbor and Presque Isle plans to discontinue flights between the towns and Boston, but not before federal officials can find replacement carriers for the two airports.
Colgan Air, which operates as U.S. Airways Express in the region, plans to petition the U.S. Department of Transportation to end service between Boston and Presque Isle and between Bar Harbor and Boston, potentially sometime next year.
Colgan Air receives federal subsidies to provide regular flights into Bar Harbor and Presque Isle under the DOT’s Essential Air Service program. Established in 1978 during the period of airline deregulation, the EAS program provides federal assistance to air carriers serving smaller communities that otherwise might lose service because of economic factors.
“In accordance with EAS regulations and contracts, we will remain [in Presque Isle and Bar Harbor] until we fulfill our obligations or a replacement carrier is identified,” wrote Joe Williams, a spokesman for Memphis-based Pinnacle Airlines, the parent company of Colgan Air. “The likely end date is early 2012.”
Williams said the company was scaling back its Boston hub service as part of changes to the company’s strategic plan.
Scott Wardwell, airport director at Northern Maine Regional Airport in Presque Isle, said Friday that airport officials were surprised by Colgan’s decision. Wardwell said he was informed that Colgan has decided to close its Boston office because the market that it serves has gotten smaller. That, combined with the ripple effect of higher fuel costs and the shaky economy, contributed to the decision to pull out of the airports, according to Wardwell.
In Presque Isle and Bar Harbor, the airline offers business and leisure air travelers nonstop service to and from Boston’s Logan Airport in a 34-seat Saab 340 turbo jet prop.
Wardwell said a total of 19 flights depart from Presque Isle every week and that any new carrier must meet the minimum requirements under the EAS program.
“The minimum requirements aren’t much different than what we have here at the airport now,” said Wardwell. “One of the changes if a new carrier is found is that they could go back to a smaller airplane. Under the minimum requirements, that would be a 15 seat plane, but that is just speculation at this point.”
A downside of a new carrier, however, is the potential for fewer flights out of the airport.
He said that airport users and those considering flying out of Presque Isle “shouldn’t panic” at the recent announcement, simply because Colgan can’t pull its flights until a new carrier is found.
Bar Harbor airport officials, while expressing disappointment at the announcement, said the change presents the growing airport with an opportunity to enhance the service.
“We have demonstrated the capacity to fill a 34-passenger Saab 340 with our current airline and will use that to garner interest from several other airlines,” M. Allison Navia, manager at the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport, said in a statement.
“Pinnacle has assured me that they will continue providing service right up until the last day,” Navia said. “Working together, we will come up with a schedule conducive to both business and leisure travel.”
The EAS program has repeatedly come under fire from critics in Congress who contend the federal government is wasting money by helping pay for flights into airports around the country that sometimes see little use, despite the subsidies. Supporters of the program, including many Maine officials, describe the subsidies as vital, however.
As of May 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation was providing Colgan Air with an annual subsidy of $2.1 million to help underwrite flights into Bar Harbor and $2.6 million for flights into Presque Isle.
Federal transportation officials will soon solicit proposals from potential carriers. According to Wardwell, Colgan Air will remain in Maine for at least 90 days due to the time to solicit, review and then render a decision on proposals.
But the process could stretch out a great deal longer, he said. If no bidders respond to the Requests for Proposals, which Wardwell acknowledged is possible, Colgan has to stay at the airport until a suitable replacement is found.
Regardless of the time frame, Wardwell said that passengers who have already bought tickets and those who plan to do so in the future should do so without fear.
“They won’t lose money if carriers change,” he said Friday. “New carriers will honor those tickets, or they will make other arrangements so that the ticket will be viable.”
Since officials have in the past tried to reduce funding or eliminate the EAS program, Wardwell said that the Presque Isle airport has for some time been working on initiatives to better the airport and the programs it offers to keep and lure in more passengers.
“So this, in a way, will enhance our efforts to make lemons out of lemonade,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Caribou native, acknowledged Friday that she was concerned upon hearing the news.
“As a native of Aroostook County, I am concerned because I know how important regularly scheduled and reliable air service is to rural areas,” she said in a statement. “It is not only critical to the residents who rely on it for travel, but also to the economic well-being of our business community and the preservation and creation of good jobs.”
Wardwell acknowledged that the uncertainty of the current situation or even a new carrier could lead to a drop in passengers at the airport, which would mean a drop in revenue unless fees were increased. The best thing that people can do now, he said, is to fly out of Presque Isle.
“Give us support,” he said. “Use Northern Maine Regional Airport as much as possible. There are some great deals coming up, so please, check us out.”
Likewise, Navia said the Bar Harbor airport and Colgan have recently secured reduced rates that would allow passengers to fly to Boston this fall for $91 to $110 one-way with advance purchase.
Maine’s two other EAS airports, in Augusta and Rockland, are both served by Cape Air, a Massachusetts-based regional airline. Colgan Air had provided service to the Augusta airport until last December.
An early version of this story requires correction. Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport has never offered flights to Plattsburg, N.Y. It offers daily flights to Logan Airport in Boston.