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Airport leaders in Presque Isle say United changes off to strong start

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — United Airlines’ service to Newark is going well at the newly-renamed Presque Isle International Airport, despite some occasional growing pains, according to airport leaders.  

As the Presque Isle airport advisory committee met Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 14, to discuss the first month of United Airlines’ new 50-seat jet service between Newark and Presque Isle, the rest of the day’s flights were cancelled due to poor weather and visibility in Newark.

“It just keeps raining, especially in Newark,” said airport director Scott Wardwell, referring to the record rainy summer in the Mid-Atlantic region.

On average, 82 percent of the time, Liberty International Airport in Newark has good weather conditions that allow 48 planes to land per hour, Wardwell said. Nine percent of the time, there is marginal visibility, allowing 38 landings per hour. The rest of the time, in poor conditions, only 28 landings per hour are possible.

In poor weather, flights from all over the country to Newark are delayed or cancelled as a landing queue takes place, as was the case Tuesday for United’s service to Presque Isle.

Presque Isle’s distance from Newark actually leaves it less exposed to this issue than airports closer, which can get kicked back further in the queue, Wardwell said. For instance, the regional airport in Elmira, New York, recently went five days without air service, he said.

A United Airlines jet takes off from Presque Isle International Airport Monday, July 2, marking the start of the company’s daily service to Newark, New Jersey, under a federal contract with the Essential Air Service program. (Anthony Brino | Star-Herald)

Overall, Wardwell said that United’s cancellation rate in Presque Isle in August was not as bad it could be. Through Aug. 14, the rate was 6.8 percent, compared to 13.5 percent for United’s Newark flights from Bangor International Airport.

In July, United’s first month operating out of Presque Isle, 1,105 passengers flew on the daily service to Newark, according to the airport’s data. The company’s bid projected garnering 1,695 passengers per month, and in July of last year, 1,378 people flew with Pen Air to Boston.

Airport advisory board chair Charlie Namur, a former commercial pilot, said that he and others on the board have expected there would be some growing pains for United’s service.

Namur said it’s always been the long-term goal of the airport to bring jet service back to Presque Isle, which it hasn’t seen since 1978, and to have a connection to a large hub like Newark. United flies a 50-passenger Embraer ERJ 145 jet out of Presque Isle while PenAir flew a 33-seat Saab 340  twin-engine turboprop aircraft.

United replaced Pen Air in July, when a new two-year contract took effect for service under the federal Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes air service in rural areas. In January, both the Presque Isle airport advisory board and City Council supported United’s bid to Newark over Pen Air’s proposal to continue service to Boston, which started in 2012. In March, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the two-year contract to United, following the recommendation of the city council.

The airport, formerly known as the Northern Maine Regional Airport, changed its name to the Presque Isle International Airport in tandem with the move to United. Wardwell said that all of the signs around the area and at the airport should be changed within the next two months.

The airport is also in the beginning stages of a major marketing push for the new service across traditional and digital media. Wardwell said the airport has about $325,000 in an advertising budget for the new service, with $250,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation and $75,000 from airport revenue.

“The advertising is just getting started,” Wardwell said, explaining that the initial target area is all of Aroostook County and northwestern New Brunswick.

Airport revenue is already increasing due to its sale of jet fuel to United, Wardwell said. In July the airport sold United 25,000 gallons of jet fuel, compared to about 30,000 gallons sold to Pen Air in all of 2017, he said.  “It will be a concrete revenue increase to the airport.”

In other news, the airport’s plans to construct a new hangar to house up to five privately-owned airplanes is temporarily on hold due to bid proposals being cost-prohibitive.

The airport received three bids for the project that were “all very high,” Wardwell said. The airport is planning to reissue a call for bids in January. Wardwell said he thinks that the bids came in so high because of area contractors having a full slate of projects for the immediate future.

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