PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe is pressing to maintain current federal requirements for airplane capacity at small rural airports such as the one in Presque Isle that could be threatened by a proposed rule change.
Snowe, who is a senior member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, urged U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Tuesday to continue support for the Essential Air Service program at the Northern Maine Regional Airport in Presque Isle.
A provision in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2012 would allow LaHood to waive the requirement that aircrafts with a minimum 15-passenger capacity be used at airports served by the EAS program.
In a letter sent to LaHood on Tuesday, Snowe urged him to use his statutory authority to enforce the minimum 15-passenger-size plane for EAS airports.
Snowe stressed that allowing an airline to use smaller planes at the Presque Isle airport would be incompatible with the needs of the region.
Two months ago, Colgan Air, which operates as U.S. Airways Express in the region, announced plans to petition the DOT to end service between Boston and Presque Isle and between Bar Harbor and Boston, potentially sometime next year.
The DOT has requested proposals from airlines interested in providing a replacement EAS service, while also prohibiting Colgan Air from terminating its service to Presque Isle and Bar Harbor before that replacement can be found.
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.
As of May 2010, the DOT 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.
A spokesman for Snowe said the Presque Isle airport would be more likely than Bar Harbor to be affected by the proposed airplane capacity waiver, as planes flying from Aroostook County to the next hub in Boston have to stop and refuel, usually at airports in Bangor or Portland. Aircraft traveling from Bar Harbor can fly direct to Boston.
Scott Wardwell, airport director at Northern Maine Regional Airport, said he has been working closely with Snowe regarding the issue. He said the matter has arisen because airlines are losing money on EAS routes.
Wardwell said the high price of fuel that has contributed to the rise in ticket prices means that fewer travelers are flying.
“They [the airlines], have a train wreck on their hands,” he said. “And they are trying to stop it. But we don’t feel a city like Presque Isle should accept a carrier with a plane with six or eight seats.”
Snowe noted that Maine’s frigid winters and the 400-mile distance between Presque Isle and Boston, the nearest medium-large airport hub, require a larger aircraft to provide adequate service for the Presque Isle airport to meet the standards of the EAS program. In her letter, Snowe also urged LaHood to wait for the completion of a market study on the northern Maine airport that will provide information on the number of potential passengers to airlines interested in bidding on providing service to Presque Isle.
Wardwell said he and other members of the community are watching the issue closely.
“It was just a week and a half ago that we learned of this possibility,” he said. “We shouldn’t be forced to have an aircraft below the minimum.”
Correction: 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.