PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — After three hours of public comments mostly in favor of keeping Pen Air service to Boston, the Presque Isle City Council voted 5-1 Monday night to recommend accepting United Airlines’ bid for air service to Newark, New Jersey.
The city council followed the recommendation by the Northern Maine Regional Airport Advisory Committee to choose the United proposal, one of six bids for a federally-subsidized service contract from Presque Isle that Pen Air has held since 2012.
The city council’s vote was a recommendation to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has the ultimate decision. The DOT is likely to make its decision by March, according to airport director Scott Wardwell, and the new two-year contract would take effect July 1.
Pen Air’s current Boston to Presque Isle service is one of 175 flight routes to and from rural communities subsidized by the federal Essential Air Service program. Of the $200 million spent annually across the country, $10 million subsidizes flight service at four airports in Maine, including Augusta, Bar Harbor and Owls Head. Pen Air receives more than $5 million for the daily Presque Isle to Boston service, which saw 12,398 passengers in 2016, according to airport statistics.
United’s bid proposes daily 6 a.m. departures from Presque Isle that would be scheduled to arrive at Liberty International Airport in Newark at 8:05 a.m. Daily return flights would leave Newark at 10 p.m. and arrive shortly after midnight. On weekdays, the airline also would operate flights from Newark to Presque Isle leaving at 9 a.m. and from Presque Isle to Newark leaving at noon. United currently operates direct flights to Newark from Bangor.
United’s bid estimates garnering more than 31,000 annual passengers and requiring a subsidy of $4.45 million, while earning a 4 percent profit margin. One-way fares would start at $143. United’s bid assumes that it will “grow the market and reduce the need for the subsidy” for the Northern Maine Regional Airport, Wardwell wrote in a memo to the council.
The airport advisory board backed the United proposal because it would offer more choices of final destinations through connecting flights at the large hub of Newark, said advisory board chair Charlie Namur, a former pilot.
For air travellers from Aroostook County and New Brunswick, Orlando is the number one ultimate destination, followed by New York, Washington D.C., South Florida and Boston, Namur said. According to estimates in a study commissioned by the city, of the people who use air travel within Presque Isle’s catchment area, only 6.8 percent fly from Northern Maine Regional Airport. The rest fly from Bangor, Fredericton, Portland or direct from Logan.
Pen Air’s proposal predicts as many as 28,710 passengers and seeks a subsidy of $6.5 million, an increase that the company attributed to rising landing and hanger fees at the Northern Maine Regional Airport and a forced move to Terminal E at Boston Logan. (Wardwell attributes the increased landing fees to new Federal Aviation Administration requirements for all airports to use de-icing chemicals on runways.) Pen Air’s proposal would include a 5 percent profit margin and one-way fares would remain starting at $117.
Before voting to make the recommendation, the city council heard from more than 20 speakers, including airport advisory board chairman Charlie Namur, Wardwell, Pen Air employees and executives, and residents from around Aroostook County who regularly travel by plane.
Many asked the councilors to support Pen Air’s bid to continue service to Boston, where several of the speakers said they or family members travel for specialized medical care.
“As a patient, I have three different hospitals that I receive treatment from in Boston,” said Jill Boyd of Presque Isle. “Emotionally and physically, to try to stay somewhere until 10, 10:30, 11 o’clock at night, probably would be impossible.”
Others argued that New England’s largest city is a logical destination to maintain for Aroostook County residents and businesses, and others said that Newark is notorious for flight delays.
By switching to United, “are we biting off our nose to spite our face?” asked Theresa Fowler, executive director of the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce.
Murphy Forner, Pen Air senior vice president, said that Pen Air has invested a lot in serving Northern Maine since the demise of Colgan Air in 2012, and wants to remain. Forner added that while the relatively small, family-owned company is in the midst of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it will ultimately “come out stronger.”
The city councilors also deliberated amongst themselves and with members of the public before taking a vote.
“Councilors have been absolutely inundated with phone calls, emails and visits” on the issue, said council chair Emily Smith.
Smith, who said she flies regularly from Bangor as a manager in her family’s multi-state farm business, supported recommending the United bid on the grounds that direct flights to Newark would open up new opportunities for area business owners.
“This issue to me is making business travel in Aroostook County more viable,” Smith said.
Councilor Leigh Smith, a realtor and landlord who also supported the recommendation, said he works with a lot of people from other areas who would like to see more choices for air travel from northern Maine. “One of the concerns they have is the connectivity in Boston.”
At the same time, he said, the number of proposals at the airport is a healthy economic sign for the region. “I feel like it’s an excellent problem to have that we have six airlines that want to be here.”
The only councilor to vote against the recommendation was Doug Cyr, who was appointed to serve the remainder of the term for the council seat vacated by Natilee Graves.
While he said he thinks United’s service could help grow the airport, “the medical side of things steers toward the essential part of essential air service,” Cyr said.
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