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Presque Isle celebrates new airline’s first take off

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — United Airlines made its inaugural departure from the newly-renamed Presque Isle International Airport Monday morning, starting a new service that Presque Isle leaders hope will bring opportunities for Aroostook County residents and businesses.

Water cannons from a Presque Isle Fire Department truck celebrate the first United Airlines departure from the newly-renamed Presque Isle International Airport on Monday, July 2. (Anthony Brino | Star-Herald)

United’s 50-seat jet arrived for the first time Sunday night on an incoming flight from Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey, with 37 passengers, said airport director Scott Wardwell. On Monday, 26 passengers were on the first departing flight at 6 a.m. as a crowd of spectators looked on.

“There’s a lot of people who worked really hard in order to make this happen,” Wardwell said at a press conference after the morning take off. “This has big economic benefits associated with it. We have a unique opportunity and a door has been opened.”

United’s service from Presque Isle under the federal Essential Air Service program marks the first time since 1978 that the Presque Isle airport has had jet service. From 2012 to this year, the airport was served by PenAir’s service to Boston via a 33-seat twin-engine turboprop plane.

Early this year, the Presque Isle airport advisory board and City Council both supported choosing United Airlines’ bid to provide service under the federal program to Newark, a major hub for U.S. and international flights. At the recommendation of the Presque Isle councilors, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the two-year contract to United, replacing PenAir which had served the area since 2012.

PenAir ended its service at Presque Isle at the end of May, a month ahead of the contract end date, citing the loss of pilots and maintenance staff amid a tight labor market.

A spokesperson for United Airlines, which also runs flights out of Bangor and Portland, said that the company saw an opportunity to add air service from Presque Isle under the Essential Air Service program.

“We determined that the demand is there and that it would be in everyone’s best interest if we added a flight,” said United Airlines spokesperson Jonathan Guerin. We’re always researching areas, looking at markets where there is strong demand for customers to travel from their location to a United hub.”

Granvill Lamb, vice chair of the Presque Isle airport advisory committee, said the new jet service was long in the making.

“Ever since the airport advisory board was started in 1997, it’s always been a goal and been on the forefront to get that jet service back here. Many times we wondered if we were going to or not going to.”

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)

Jack Penning, an industry consultant hired by Presque Isle, said the airport worked hard to market itself to United and that United sees strong, pent-up demand in the region for service to a major international airport. From Newark, United alone offers connections to 160 U.S. and international destinations.

“I cannot tell you the number of meetings we have had with carriers trying to convince them that there was a market here, and we finally were able to convince United.”

In tandem with that marketing, he said, the airport moved to change its name to reflect both its location and its connections. A survey of 500 people concerning the previous name, the Northern Maine Regional Airport, found that only two people knew the airport was located in Presque Isle.  

“They weren’t sure if it was here, if it was up north of here, if it was in Bangor,” Penning said.

The new name, the Presque Isle International Airport, took effect Monday and will pair well with marketing of the United service to people in northern Maine, New Brunswick and Quebec, he said. Signage and marketing also will be in English and French to try to reach Francophone Canadians, he said.

“Our hope is that this is a symbol of the ease and convenience of the new service, of using this airport instead of driving out to other communities.”

Wardwell said that the start of United’s jet service could help northern Maine in its economic development efforts in bringing in more tourists and facilitating business travel. When Wardwell was working with the Northern Maine Development Commission and advising a now-closed perfume bottling business in Madawaska, he said the business’s manager had a hard time getting prospective clients to fly to northern Maine despite the availability of commercial flights on a smaller aircraft.

“His number one issue was we didn’t have regional jet service,” Wardwell said. “His customers all had corporate policies that they wouldn’t fly on turboprop aircraft. It had to be a jet aircraft.”

United’s flights are scheduled to depart daily from Presque Isle at 6 a.m. and arrive in Newark at 8:19 a.m. and depart from Newark at 10 p.m. with an arrival around midnight.

On Mondays through Fridays, United also will operate flights leaving Newark at 9 a.m. and leaving Presque Isle at 11:06 a.m. Round-trip tickets start in the $250-$300 range.

“United is just starting here and the schedule and various other things will change,” Wardwell said. “United is a much more dynamic company. They’re looking to significantly grow the market.”

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