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In month without air service, Presque Isle airport looks ahead

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — As the former airline serving northern Maine faces possible penalties for ending its federal service contract a month early, the Northern Maine Regional Airport is focusing on the airport’s next chapter: jet service from United Airlines to the large hub of Newark beginning July 1.  

On May 30, Alaska-based PenAir informed the U.S. Department of Transportation that it would cease operations for its routes to Boston from Presque Isle, Bar Harbor and Plattsburgh, New York, on June 1, a month of ahead of the end of its service contracts.

PenAir had held those contracts with the U.S. DOT under the Essential Air Service Program since 2012 but lost all of them to other airlines this spring. The company cited the early loss of its mechanics and pilots to other airlines in the decision to end its service early, saying that it couldn’t maintain its fleet safely as it lost critical employees.

Under the Essential Air Service program’s regulations, PenAir was required to continue air service until the new carrier took over and could be subject to civil penalties, according to the U.S. DOT’s media office. PenAir, which offered full refunds to customers with June tickets, did not respond to a request for comment.

The month without air service has left some northern Maine travellers forced to make other arrangements, and also impacted local car rental companies, taxi cabs, hotels and companies that did business with PenAir, said Northern Maine Regional Airport Director Scott Wardwell.

Last year, Wardwell said, June was the fourth busiest month for the airport, which also will lose some revenue that comes from parking lot fees and a commission on rental cars.

However, he said, “The economic impact of this short-term interruption is a lot more muted than if this was permanent.”

Local officials asked, but United Airlines, which won the bid for the two-year contract serving Presque Isle, was not able to start early, Wardwell said.

However, he said, the airline and the airport are working hard this month to ensure a smooth start in July, when United’s 50 passenger Embraer ERJ 145 jet will start flying daily between Presque Isle and Newark, New Jersey.

It’ll be the first time since 1978 that the Northern Maine Regional Airport has had jet service. United’s flights are scheduled to depart daily from Presque Isle at 6 a.m. and arrive in Newark at 8:05 a.m, with daily return flights leaving Newark at 10 p.m. and arriving in Presque Isle shortly after midnight. Mondays through Fridays, United also will operate flights from Newark to Presque Isle leaving at 9 a.m. and from Presque Isle to Newark leaving at noon.

At the Northern Maine Regional Airport, United Airlines is setting up a new check-in counter and also will be featuring ticket service through a smartphone app that will let fliers bypass the check-in counter, Wardwell said. The airline also is readying its new ground equipment, such as tugs and luggage loaders, Wardwell said.

The airport is in the midst of preparing for the transition by enlarging the secure seating area. The Transportation Security Administration’s inspection station is being relocated to the room currently hosting the baggage belt, he said.

The director declined to specify the cost to the airport in enlarging the TSA area until the project is complete this month.

He said United and the airport are working to get the word out about the new service. From Newark, passengers will be able to access flights all around the country and the world through United or other airlines. Access to the large Newark hub was one of the reasons why the Presque Isle City Council decided to endorse the bid from United and decline to support continued air service to Boston with PenAir.

United’s tickets from Presque Isle have been available online for about a month and Wardwell said he’s looking forward to seeing how the flying public responds to the new service.

“There’s a good bit of branding that United is doing. It’s going to look quite a bit different.”

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