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Airport leaders need more time to gauge full impact of accident, shutdown

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — It will likely take several months to gauge the impact on ridership from the 9-day shutdown at the Presque Isle International Airport, according to the city’s airport advisory committee.

“Whether ridership comes up or takes any hit because of the accident, we’ll have a better idea in May and June,” Charlie Namur, chair of the advisory board and a former commercial pilot, said Tuesday.

On March 4, a 50-seat Embraer 145 jet flying 31 passengers to Presque Isle from Newark, New Jersey, missed the runway on its second attempt at landing, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board. The rough landing in the snow covered field injured three people, substantially damaged the plane, and halted passenger air travel to and from Presque Isle for nine days.

The accident also raised concerns about the future of United Airlines’ service, which runs under a two-year contract and is subsidized through the federal Essential Air Service program with $4.78 million annually.

In March, United flew 666 passengers, about half as many as the company projected in its bid proposal prior to starting the service in July 2018, according to airport figures. In February, United flew 931 passengers, nearly meeting its estimate of 944 for that month, while in January it flew 855 people, 21 percent less than was expected.

In the second half of 2018, the first six months of the new service, United flew 6,247 passengers, 26 percent less than the bid projected and 9 percent less than Pen Air’s service to Boston flew in the second half of 2017.

While incidents like the one in March are not uncommon, commercial air travel is also very safe, Namur said. More than 2.6 million Americans travel by plane every day and major injuries and fatalities are rare, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

It will take several months for the Presque Isle International Airport to see if people are still flying in and out of the Star-City, as the summer tourism season gets into swing.

Namur said the event will be a learning opportunity for airlines and airports alike.

“I’ve always had the attitude that — somebody crashed an airplane, so what can I learn from what happened? There very seldom is one cause. There’s usually three or four. Weather will definitely be a big factor.”

The initial NTSB report, released on March 21, does not say what caused the plane to miss the runway. A full report with findings of the cause and recommendations is expected to be released within a year.

In other Presque Isle aviation news, airport director Scott Wardwell told the committee Tuesday that he is in talks with the FAA to potentially secure funding for additional snow sweeper equipment. Such equipment could help the airport more efficiently clear snow to meet new federal runway requirements.

Wardwell also said the airport is taking a second try at finding a contractor to build five new hangars that would be rented to owners of private aircraft.

The airport issued bids previously, but ended up not pursuing them due to high construction costs, although now Wardwell said they have received feedback and have plans that will cost less than those initial bids. Building could take place this year and rents would run at more than $300 per month, double the rent at current hangars that are decades old, Wardwell said.

Committee member Nate Grass also spoke about potential events to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Presque Isle Air Museum at the airport this summer.

The museum was set up in 1999 and includes exhibits on the history of the airport, the Presque Isle Army Airfield during World War II and the Presque Air Force Base, which closed in 1961 and became what is now the Skyway Industrial Park.

Grass said a group of pilots who fly C-47 skytrains — a class of military transport aircraft first used in World War II — may be interested in flying into Presque Isle and spending a day here on their way to London in May.

“It’s a possibility,” Grass said. “The air base has a great legacy.”

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