FORT KENT, Maine — Northern Maine residents and businessmen dependent on reliable air transportation were told during a breakfast meeting here Thursday that no one would be left grounded by a current commercial carrier’s plans to stop serving Aroostook.
Colgan Air, which operates as U.S. Airways Express, has petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation to end service between Boston and Presque Isle and between Bar Harbor and Boston, as soon as next year.
Colgan Air receives federal subsidies to provide regular flights into Presque Isle and Bar Harbor under the DOT’s Essential Air Services Program which provides assistance to air carriers serving smaller communities.
“Under the federal EAS law the current airline must stay and service the area until a suitable replacement is found,” Scott Wardwell, airport director at Northern Maine Regional Airport in Presque Isle, told those attending a breakfast hosted Thursday by the University of Maine at Fort Kent. “It is important to note [Colgan’s] decision to leave has little to do with Presque Isle and everything to do with the New England market.”
Among the issues surrounding Colgan’s departure, Wardwell said, is the shifting of locations, “hubs,” from which airlines base their operations.
For years, Boston’s Logan Airport served as the northeast hub for carriers such as U.S. Air, but Wardwell said that carrier and others plan to abandon Logan in favor of hubs in New York and New Jersey.
Wardwell said the potential loss of Colgan Air presents both risks and opportunities to Aroostook.
“We need to be proactive to grasp onto an opportunity,” he said. “Airlines are a private business [and] you have to sell your region and your market to attract them.”
Colgan currently offers 19 direct flights a week between Presque Isle and Boston in a 34-seat Saab 340 turbo jet prop.
According to EAS regulations, a “suitable” replacement airline, Wardwell said, could mean a new carrier with smaller planes, less seating capacity and fewer available flights.
The EAS currently mandates a minimum of a 15-seat plane operating out of Presque Isle.
“Removal of the 34-seat aircraft is something of a concern,” Wardwell said. “It’s not so much the seating issue as it is the lack of a bathroom in a plane that size that gets people excited.”
The only other viable options, according to Wardwell, are United Airlines or Delta Airlines.
Massachusetts-based Cape Air has expressed interest in operating a nine-passenger plane to replace Colgan’s Presque Isle flights, Wardwell said. Cape Air has affiliations with United Airlines, Continental Airlines, JetBlue Airways and American Airlines, according to its website at www.capeair.net.
Efficient and affordable travel is crucial to economic and business development in northern Maine, Wardwell said, and he encouraged business leaders to participate in a detailed survey through his office.
“We can use the information from the survey to better negotiate and sell this area to a new airline,” he said.
Whatever airline eventually takes over from Colgan, Wardwell said, most likely will operate out of one of the three New York City area airports.
“Once you are at those airports you can go anywhere in the world,” he said. “Pretty soon Boston is not going to be a hub for anything.”
That, he added, would be a good selling point for individuals or businesses interested in international travel.
“That’s a really good niche,” he said. “Look at last year with the events (like the World Cup biathlons) that attracted 2,000 to 3,000 travelers last winter.”
Wardwell said Aroostook County’s population of 70,000 should be attractive to potential air carriers as a viable market.
As air transportation officials work with politicians and carriers to attract service to northern Maine, Wardwell said there is no reason to believe Colgan’s level of service will decline.
“There has to be a concern about performance [but] so far Colgan’s performance has been consistent,” he said. “As long as they see we are doing our utmost to find a replacement they will continue to operate and work with us.”
Wardwell said he plans to begin compiling the survey data by the middle of this month.
Anyone interested in viewing the survey or with questions regarding air travel in northern Maine can contact Wardwell at 764-2550 or by email at scottw@FlyPresqueisle.com.