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Officials mull ways to boost ridership at Presque Isle airport

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Six months into United Airlines’ new air service to Newark, Presque Isle officials are optimistic about its future but are looking for opportunities to increase ridership.

Presque Isle’s airport advisory committee met Tuesday, Jan. 15, and discussed the transition to United Airlines, whose daily jet service to Newark replaced Pen Air’s service to Boston last July under the federal Essential Air Service program that subsidizes air travel in rural areas.

“I’ve been able to take four trips on the new service and have had great service all four times, being able to make connections and arrive at my final destination either on time or with a reasonable delay,” said Scott Wardwell, director of Presque Isle International Airport.

In the second half of 2018, the first six months of the new service, United flew 6,247 one way passengers, according to the airport. That’s less than the 6,921 passengers on Pen Air in the second half of 2017 and less than the 8,516 passengers that United projected in its proposal for the contract serving Presque Isle.

Airport advisory board member Robert Clark, the executive director of the Northern Maine Development Commission, said he was concerned about the trend in passenger bookings. Presque Isle officials supported the United service to Newark partly in hopes of growing overall ridership with a larger plane and service to a major hub.

“What do we do to see if we can close that gap? If they don’t meet those numbers that they told us they want to meet, doesn’t that jeopardize them bidding again,” Clark asked.

“They’ve only been here for six months and they’ve indicated they’re happy with the way things are going,” Wardwell said.

Wardwell, Clark and other members of the advisory committee talked about how United’s schedule is working for people flying in and out of Presque Isle and the schedule’s relative benefits and drawbacks.

Monday through Friday, United runs two daily flights from Presque Isle, one leaving at 6 a.m. and one leaving at 11:40 a.m. and two flights from Newark, one leaving at 9 a.m. and one leaving at 10 p.m.

On Saturdays and Sundays, the company runs the 6 a.m. flight from Presque Isle and the 10 p.m. flight from Newark. Round-trip tickets start in the $250-$300 range.

With a delay, the last flight out of Newark — a two hour, 20 minute trip — can arrive in Presque Isle well after midnight.

“I hear a lot from the public that it’s 3 o’clock when they get into Presque Isle,” Clark said. “I hear from a lot of people ‘I’m going to Bangor from now on’ and I hate to hear that.”

United runs virtually the same service with about two fewer flights per week between Bangor and Newark, although northern Maine residents usually have a long night-time drive home, as several advisory committee members noted.

The flight arriving at midnight “is the worst performing flight,” Wardwell said. “The issue is it’s not only Presque Isle. Bangor deals with the same thing. Burlington, Vermont, deals with it. Portland deals with it.”

United’s overall flight completion rate is better than Pen Air’s, Wardwell said. United’s December completion rate was 94.2 percent, compared to 91.2 percent for Pen Air December 2017, he said.

“Every category of complaint that has been shared by the public has been shared with United,” Wardwell said.

Wardwell said he’s suggested to United that the last arrival should come in earlier, perhaps at 10 p.m. However, there is steep competition for departure space in Newark in mid-evening, and also mixed sentiments on the last arrival among the flying public. “There’s some business people that like the late arrival,” Wardwell said.

Wardwell said he’s also suggested that a weekend day could host more flights. “We believe that Sunday warrants two flights a day. Tuesday doesn’t,” he said, adding that the Essential Air Service program will only subsidize 12 flights a week.

The committee spent time discussing ideas for increasing ridership, such as by promoting the service to major regional employers like McCain Foods, the Defense Finance Accounting Service, and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

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, but the committee also supported the idea of in-person marketing pitches to companies and civic groups.

“That’s going to be something we need to address,” said Presque Isle City Manager Martin Puckett, “I think it’s time for some face-to-face. That resonates with people.”

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