Hancock County officials concerned about airport traffic volume

Posted Aug. 07, 2012, at 5:25 p.m.

TRENTON, Maine — Citing concerns about the number of passengers expected to fly out of the local airport, Hancock County officials said Tuesday that the county-owned facility could face a reduction in its annual federal funding.

Under current Federal Aviation Administration rules, the county has to have at least 10,000 paid passengers who take off from the Trenton airport in a calendar year in order to receive $1 million in federal capital improvement funds. If that number of passengers, also referred to as enplanements, falls to below 10,000 for any calendar year, the annual federal subsidy falls to $150,000.

Allison Rogers, the manager of Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport, told county commissioners Tuesday that she’s not sure Pen Air will have enough passengers this year for the airport to hit that 10,000 enplanement target. The Alaska airline, formerly known as Peninsula Airways, was selected in March to take over the Essential Air Services federal program from Colgan Air for airports in Trenton, Presque Isle and Plattsburgh, N.Y.

“I’m really worried about this year,” Rogers told commissioners Steve Joy and Percy “Joe” Brown. She did not provide commissioners with any year-to-date estimates of departing passengers, but added, “Pen Air has not been doing so well as far as enplanements go.”

Rogers said that Massachusetts-based Cape Air, which flies smaller, nine-seat Cessna aircraft year-round in and out of the Trenton airport, has been doing well. Pen Air, which uses 34-seat Saab aircraft, has suffered from mechanical issues and generally appears to have had more trouble making the adjustment to serving the local market, the airport manager said.

“I think it’s a matter of Pen Air’s growing pains being a lot more significant than anyone thought they were going to be,” Rogers told commissioners.

A voicemail message left at Pen Air’s main office in Anchorage, Alaska, was not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.

Rogers said that, if 2012 enplanements dip below 10,000, it wouldn’t affect the county’s annual capital improvement subsidy from FAA until two years from now. A terminal expansion project at the airport planned for 2013, the projected cost of which is around $2 million, would not be affected by the reduction of the federal subsidy, she said.

What would be affected, Rogers said, is a taxiway construction project planned for 2014. That project likely would cost $900,000 but could end up costing more. The airport already has completed the planning and design phase for the taxiway project, she said, but FAA could make the airport go through the planning and design phase again if too much time passes before taxiway construction begins.

Rogers said maintaining the annual $1 million subsidy is crucial to keeping up with the list of projects in the airport’s long-range master plan.

“I’ve got plans for 15 years out for this place,” she said.

Joy said it is important that there are at least 10,000 enplanements this year at the airport. The viability of air service is important to the local business community and to the area’s seasonal tourist industry. Special offers a few years ago helped to boost the annual figure, he noted, and should be used again if needed to help meet that minimum target.

“That’s not acceptable,” Joy said of falling short and losing $850,000 in federal funds. “We need our 10,000 enplanements.”

Rogers said after talking to the commissioners that she thinks any reduction below the five-figure enplanement threshold would be temporary. Pen Air and the other commercial passenger service providers at the airport likely will have a cumulative total of at least 10,000 enplanements again in 2013, she said.

Rogers said that, even if the airport falls below the 10,000 enplanement goal for 2012, its terminal still would be “woefully inadequate” for meeting the airport’s current needs. The existing building was constructed in 1976, she said, well before present-day security and safety standards were widely adopted.

The project is expected to consist of an addition to the northern side of the existing 4,000-square-foot terminal that approximately will double the building’s size, she said. The terminal will have two gates, rather than just the existing one, and will provide better passenger flow through the building, even with the improved security layout. She said she expects the addition will cost between $1.8 million and $2 million, depending on its final design. As in most capital improvement projects at the airport, FAA is expected to pay 90 percent of the project’s costs, with the remainder being split evenly by the state and the county.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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