Presque Isle airport deals with challenging winter, factors beyond control

5 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With record-breaking snow and a recent bout of rain, winter is throwing everything at Presque Isle International Airport, while crew members are doing all they can to keep planes coming and going. 

“It’s unfortunate that we’re having a winter like we are in the first year of the new service,” said airport director Scott Wardwell. “Imagine the impression it’s creating in United’s mind? The people operating this airline aren’t northern Mainers.”

During the week of Jan. 20, multiple flights were delayed and cancelled, and on the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 24, a plane that was already delayed a day coming into Presque Isle turned around to Newark after trying to land in The County during rainy, foggy winter weather.

“The landing airplane made two attempts, and did not break out of the clouds sufficiently that they felt the could continue landing safely,” Wardwell said.

Airport crews spent the rest of Thursday trying to clear ice off the runway amid the rain, using some $6,000 worth of potassium acetate deicing fluid in the process, to no avail, according to Wardwell.

“Because of the rain, it just diluted it before it had an opportunity to work,” he said. “By FAA rules, any ice with water on top closes the airport.”

On Friday, United ended up flying Presque Isle-bound passengers to Bangor and chartering them a Cyr bus to Presque Isle, while also transporting fliers from Presque Isle to Bangor to depart from there. By Friday afternoon, the airport’s fleet of ice and snow removal equipment reopened the runway and planes have resumed arrivals and departures.

Last July, United’s daily jet service to Newark replaced Pen Air’s service to Boston under the federal Essential Air Service program that subsidizes air travel in rural areas.

Wardwell and the Presque Isle City Council backed the United bid out of a range of other proposals partly out of a desire to gain jet service and bring better connections from a larger hub and partly because it was one of the few viable options, Wardwell said. PenAir, for instance, had gone into bankruptcy and was acquired by a rival carrier that closed its East Coast operations, and another company that offered bids has since gone out of business.

While the United service to Newark has been welcomed by some of Aroostook County’s flying public, others wanted to keep a connection to Boston  in order to access speciality medical care in New England’s largest city. Some who’ve had poor experiences, such as being stranded in Newark, have said they’ll fly out of Bangor next time.

Wardwell said that all of the concerns and suggestions he’s received are being passed onto United. However, he noted that Bangor and Portland also deal with major issues related to snow and ice and delays and cancellations that originate out of the major East Coast hubs like Newark.

“The big generator of the problems is the air traffic controllers delays in Newark. We were taking significant delays through the summer and through the fall. It had nothing to do with winter weather. Newark is a very challenging environment. A lot of air travellers who are used to Newark know that.”

For some people who fly, delays and cancellations are okay. Many of the complaints about the new service are related to the nature of passenger air travel in general. Newark’s delay and cancellation rates are about the same as any other major East Coast hub, Wardwell said.

The airport is working to market the service to try to build ridership and counteract some of the negative public perceptions.

In the second half of 2018, the first six months of the new service, United flew 6,247 one way passengers, about 9 percent less than the 6,921 passengers on Pen Air in the second half of 2017 and 26 percent less than the 8,516 passengers that United projected in its proposal for the contract serving Presque Isle.

But Wardwell said the trends in the later months of 2018 show some promise, and there’s another year-and-a-half left in United’s contract.

“In December, we beat the six-year average by four percent, and beat every December under Pen Air. When we started back in July, we weren’t doing that well because we had a whole month without service,” he said, referring to PenAir leaving a month before its contract ended.

As the marketing effort continues, winter weather maintenance at Presque Isle and other northern airports “is a tremendous task,” Wardwell said.

“It is something that the FAA rules have made significantly more difficult and expensive,” he said, referring to Federal Aviation Administration rules that took effect in 2015. Those rules were developed in response to the 2005 crash of a Southwest plane in Chicago that skidded off a runway into a road in a snowstorm and killed a young boy in a car.

The rules require airports and airlines to use a 0-6 rating system for runway conditions, where 0 has wet ice and must be closed, 1 has ice and 6 is clear. The rules leave some decisions up to the pilots, but in some cases, airlines are now cancelling flights in conditions that they previously may have gone ahead in.

“PenAir’s last year had a lot of cancellations largely due to these regulations taking effect,” Wardwell said. “We’re dealing with a whole new set of rules. The first year the rules were in place, the weather was such we didn’t have a lot of ice and didn’t have a lot of cancellations.”