Presque Isle International Airport director Scott Wardwell talks with employees of United Airlines ahead of the company's first departure from Presque Isle Monday, July 2, 2018. Credit: Anthony Brino | Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The U.S. Department of Transportation is soliciting bids for an Essential Air Service contract to provide flights to and from Presque Isle International Airport beginning in 2020.

The airline the DOT chooses for the contract would provide services at the Presque Isle airport beginning on July 1, 2020.

United Airlines is flying 12 nonstop round-trip flights a week from Presque Isle to Newark, New Jersey, through its contract, which began on July 1, 2018. United will be eligible to bid on the upcoming contract.

The DOT issued an order requesting proposals from airlines interested in filling the spot on Nov. 14. The city of Presque Isle publicized that request Tuesday, Dec. 10.

All proposals are due to the DOT by Dec. 18. Bids will be made available to the city of Presque Isle on Dec. 20, which the city will make public on its website and Facebook page.

A public forum on the bidding will be held at 6 p.m. Jan. 3, 2020, at Presque Isle Middle School. Speakers will be limited to two minutes per person.

Though the Presque Isle City Council is able to make a recommendation that the DOT must consider, the DOT will make the final choice on who is awarded the contract. Criteria for selection include the expected effectiveness of the airline and local public opinion.

Presque Isle City Manager Martin Puckett said he expected the city council to make its recommendation when it meets Jan. 8, 2020.

Airport Director Scott Wardwell said the bidding request was a standard process with Essential Air Service contracts and had nothing to do with United’s performance at the airport. He was unsure if United planned to bid for the new contract.

“What airlines do is they keep their intentions confidential to make the bidding process as competitive as possible,” Wardwell said.

Wardwell said that many misunderstood the role of the city of Presque Isle in the Essential Air Service contract process. He said that the contract is between the airline and the DOT, not Presque Isle’s city government.

He also said many misunderstood the Essential Air Service program, which he compared to a “social safety net program” that prevents communities from going without air service.

“Basically, you kind of get what you get,” Wardwell said. “There are certain minimums that are specified … but it doesn’t guarantee that you are going to go to ‘X,’ and it doesn’t guarantee the airline is going to be on time 95 percent of the time.”

A Department of Transportation spokesperson said the new bidding would not affect the existing contract between United Airlines and the DOT for services at Presque Isle International. They reiterated that the DOT had not yet chosen any airline as the process had “just started.”

According to the Department of Transportation website, Essential Air Service contracts are generally made on a two-year basis to allow for a “competitive bidding process,” and enable communities and the DOT the ability to change airlines if needed.

DOT selected United Airlines for its current contract on March 20, 2018. The airline receives an annual federal subsidy of about $4.8 million to fly the route.

Essential Air Service is a federal government program intended to ensure that small communities maintain air travel, even when such travel may not be commercially viable. At the end of fiscal year 2018, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the DOT provided subsidies to 174 communities through the program.

According to DOT data, 21,467 people passed through Presque Isle International Airport in 2018, approximately 59 people per day. Through the first three quarters of 2019, 20,015 had traveled through, averaging 73 people per day.

Those who have questions or comments regarding the bidding are advised by the DOT to email Michael Martin at