The Star-Herald

PenAir abruptly ends service to Presque Isle; new airline can’t start until July 1

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Northern Maine Regional Airport will have to wait until July for passenger air service to resume when United Airlines starts its new service to Newark.

After PenAir announced that it would be ending its service to Boston June 1, a month before its federally-subsidized contract ends, the new carrier, United Airlines, informed the city of Presque Isle that it cannot begin any earlier than July 1, city spokesperson Kim Smith said in a press release.

“While United clearly understands what it means to the community not to have air service, they are and must be committed to maintaining a high level of safety,” Smith said in the release issued Monday.

Alaska-based PenAir told the U.S. Department of Transportation it had to end operations a month early for its routes to Boston from Presque Isle, Bar Harbor and Plattsburgh, New York, due to an exodus of mechanics and pilots. PenAir has held contracts for those routes under the federal Essential Air Service Program since 2012 but lost all of them to other airlines this spring.

Following a recommendation by the Presque Isle City Council, the U.S. DOT awarded the contract in March to Chicago-based United Airlines, which is scheduled to take over serving Presque Isle with a new route to Newark on July 1.

Smith said that the Northern Maine Regional Airport, which is managed by Presque Isle, already is on “a pretty tight schedule” preparing for the July 1 United startup.

The airport is expanding the Transportation Security Administration area in order to accomodate an expected larger volume of passengers on United’s 50-seat jet aircraft. PenAir has used a 33-seat Saab 340 twin-engine turboprop plane.

“We are remaining positive and looking forward to regional jet service to Newark with over 160 non-stop destinations on United alone,” Scott Wardwell, Northern Maine Regional Airport director, said in the release.  

In an email, Wardwell noted that this is the first time the airport has seen a gap in service due to a departing airline not meeting its contractual terms. In 2012, before PenAir started to serve Presque Isle, Colgan Air continued providing air service despite its financial troubles, Wardwell said.

Linda Hale of Greensboro, North Carolina, was among the last 15 passengers to fly out of Presque Isle on PenAir on May 31. As she prepared to return home after visiting family in Quebec, Canada, Hale said she makes the trip at least four times a year.

She had found out about the PenAir discontinuation of flights 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 that Thursday 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 Thursday. “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 pointed out 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.”

In a May 29 press release, PenAir said customers with tickets for flights in June can contact the company for a full refund.

While there will be no commercial passenger service available from Presque Isle until July, charity medical flights through Life Flight and Patient Air Lift Services are still ongoing with privately chartered planes, Smith said.

Would-be plane travellers also can get to Boston and points south through the Cyr Bus and Concord Coach Lines services.

Writer Melissa Lizotte of The Star-Herald contributed to this report.

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