TRENTON, Maine — In this economy, or in any other one for that matter, who wouldn’t like a 17,000 percent return on their investment?

That’s how much Hancock County is expected to get in return when it decided to invest $5,000 in offering heavily discounted and free airplane tickets at its airport at the end of 2009.

The county’s goal in the deal was to meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s threshold for providing the airport with $1 million in annual entitlement funds. To get the money, the airport has to have an annual total of at least 10,001 enplanements, which is a technical term for customers who purchase tickets and board air-planes at the Route 3 facility.

If the airport had fewer customers than that, its annual FAA entitlement subsidy would have fallen to $150,000, according to Hancock County Airport Manager Allison Navia.

“It looked like it would be 100 short,” Navia said Wednesday of the airport’s projections in December. “That kind of stuff is hard to forecast, especially in the winter. All you need is a few storms [to fall short].”

Navia said it took some convincing but the county’s three commissioners agreed in December to allow Navia to work with Colgan Air, which offers daily passenger service between Boston and Trenton, to offer heavily discounted tickets.

During the sale, passengers could buy round-trip tickets to Boston for only $55, she said.

“You can’t even drive down there for that much money,” Navia said.

In the end, Colgan Air and the county teamed up to sell 225 cheap tickets, 90 of which were purchased directly by the county and given away for free, according to the manager. The total doesn’t become official until April or May when FAA tallies it up, she said, but according to the county’s count it made the cut with approximately 10,100 enplanements.

With the extra boarding passengers, the airport was able to preserve the additional $850,000 in subsidy, she said. The county is expected to receive the $1 million total in 2011.

Navia said the airport was able to attract passengers from Bangor, where last year Delta canceled its daily flight service between Bangor International Airport and Boston. The timing of offering the discounts during the holidays, she said, and the fact that parking is free at the Trenton facility helped encourage people to purchase tickets once word about the discount got around.

Navia said such discount programs aimed at meeting enplanement goals are rare but not unheard of. She said she checked with the FAA and made sure such discounts did not violate the agency’s subsidy rules.

None of federal subsidy or the county’s required 2.5 percent match comes from federal or county taxes, she said. All of the funds are generated by the airline industry.

The enplanement number and resulting subsidy is not just a matter of pride, she said. The airport has several projects in the works that the entitlement money will support.

It is extending the runway safety zones at either end of the its main runway, which at the southern end involves moving the access road that connects the airport complex to Route 3. It also needs to replace its 1952 snowblower, to erect perimeter fencing to help keep deer off the runways, and to develop a master plan for the next decade.

“It’s really a big difference,” Navia said of the larger subsidy.

Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....