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Airport passengers react to PenAir service discontinuation

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Fifteen passengers sat in the terminal of the Northern Maine Regional Airport after 11 a.m. on May 31, awaiting their 11:45 a.m. flight from Presque Isle to Boston. They became the last group of individuals to fly out to Boston after PenAir officials announced Wednesday they were eliminating air service out of Presque Isle on June 1 instead of on July 1 when its contract was scheduled to end.

Earlier this week the Alaska-based PenAir informed the U.S. Department of Transportation that June 1 would be the final day for its flights to Boston from Presque Isle, Bar Harbor and Plattsburgh, New York. PenAir has held those contracts, subsidized through the federal Essential Air Service Program, since 2012 but lost all of them to other airlines this spring.

The federal DOT awarded a contract to United Airlines in March following a recommendation from the Presque Isle City Council. United Airlines is expected to begin serving Presque Isle with flights to Newark, New Jersey, on July 1.

Linda Hale of Greensboro, North Carolina, took advantage of the summer-like temperatures on Thursday and sat outside the airport as she waited for a PenAir jet to arrive from Boston.

Hale was set to return home after visiting family in Quebec, Canada, a trip that she makes at least four times a year. She had found out about the PenAir discontinuation only after arriving at the P.I. airport, but said that the possible one-month delay in air service to Presque Isle would not discourage her summer travel plans.

“I plan to visit family throughout the summer,” Hale said. “But I always liked being able to fly from North Carolina to Boston to Presque Isle because this is the closest airport to Canada.”

Without access to air service in June, many passengers noted the inconvenience that could occur if people in northern Maine needed access to air transportation or if folks from away wanted to come to the area. Pam Coffey of St. Louis, Missouri, sat with her parents, Herschel and Betty Smith of Mars Hill at the airport while waiting for her flight to Boston. Coffey, who had been visiting her parents, was surprised when she heard the announcement about PenAir.

“I freaked out a little when I first heard the news because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to fly out today,” Coffey said. “Even though the changes in June won’t affect me as much, one month seems like a long time for people in this area to go without air service.”

Bud Taylor of Boston shared much the same views as Coffey and noted that he had to cut his vacation in Aroostook County short when May 31 became the final day of PenAir’s flight service.

“I came here to visit my brother and sister-in-law for my birthday, which is today,” Taylor said. “I was scheduled to leave on Sunday, but I had to get here early in order to fly out. I usually visit once or twice a year, but it stinks to have to leave early.”

Scott Wardwell, director of the Northern Maine Regional Airport, said that as of Thursday morning he had not yet heard from United Airlines officials about whether they will be able to begin flights to Newark Liberty International Airport in June instead of July.

On Tuesday, PenAir officials stated in a press release that they chose to cease their East Coast operations due to a loss of pilots and mechanics who have accepted jobs with other airlines. Wardwell expressed disappointment with the airline’s decision and said he wished that they would have given the DOT, who operates PenAir, more of an advance notice.

According to federal regulations concerning ending or reducing basic essential air service, Wardwell said, an air carrier is expected to give communities a 90-day notice of service suspension and work with the airports to “provide a smooth transition” and “notify all passengers.”

“We know that a number of businesses and individuals depend on the air service here for transportation and not having flights for one month will certainly affect us in terms of revenue,” Wardwell said. “But thankfully we do not have to wait longer than July 1.”

The last PenAir flight from Boston was scheduled to arrive at the Northern Maine Regional Airport Thursday at 6:30 p.m. with 30 passengers.

PenAir has announced that customers who purchased tickets for flights in June can contact the company at 1-800-448-4226 for a full refund.

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