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As airport boardings grow, Presque Isle group brings more voices to air travel decisions

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — While Presque Isle International Airport broke new records for boardings in April and May, a group of residents is aiming to bring more perspectives to conversations about air travel in Aroostook County.

In April and May, 2,246 travelers boarded United Airlines flights in Presque Isle, with April seeing the most passengers in seven years and a 15 percent increase over the last six years, according to the airport. In May, the airport’s boardings were 12 percent higher than the six-year average.

The strong numbers are an indication of public confidence in the air service, said airport director Scott Wardwell. The new figures come after the March 4 landing accident where an arriving plane missed the runway on its approach and landed to the right of it, according to a National Safety Transportation Board’s preliminary report. It also comes after a range of complaints about the new service from Aroostook County travelers who have reported lengthy delays, often in Newark.

“The big reason” for the increase in passengers is likely United’s “vast network” of connections from Newark, Wardwell said. “People book a ticket and it’s just one stop. They go from here to Newark and from Newark to where they want to go.”

However, public opinion over United Airlines remains mixed. The United service replaced PenAir’s flights to Boston under the federal Essential Air Services program that subsidizes air travel in rural communities.

In early 2018, Presque Isle airport advisory leaders and the city council endorsed United’s bid from a pool of six proposals that included service to Boston, Newark and Washington, D.C.

Local leaders concluded that United’s was the strongest proposal and the U.S. Department of Transportation ultimately chose that airline. Pen Air ended up in bankruptcy and was acquired by a rival carrier that closed its East Coast operations.

Many people who live in and travel to Aroostook County would like to see flight service to Boston restored, especially those who receive specialized medical care at Boston hospitals, said Jan Lucas, who is part of the group Aroostook Air Travelers.

In May, the Facebook group Aroostook Air Traveler was started by attorney Sarah LeClaire in collaboration with Cafe Sorpreso owner Judith Boudman, Wilders Jewelry owner Cathy Beaulieu and Lucas, sales director at Hampton Inn.

The group was formed “in the hope that when the contract is renegotiated the public will have a voice,” said Lucas. The group also wants to make the case for considering re-establishing the service to Boston with another carrier.

“Everybody seems to want Boston because Boston is really the heart of New England,” Lucas said.

Lucas emphasized that she speaks for herself, not on behalf of Hampton Inn, but said she has had an inside look at the turbulent nature of United’s service from Newark, where fliers have experienced delays and cancellations since the start of the service last July.

She added that while Pen Air fliers also experienced delays and cancellations, it was more feasible to return to northern Maine from Boston by other means, such as the Concord and Cyr bus service.

In May, she said, the hotel saw 95 room cancellations related to delayed or canceled flights from Newark. The hotel does not charge them if they miss a reservation due to flight delays, she said.

Lucas said the hotel hosts approximately 100 guests a week who travel to northern Maine for tourism and business, including many doctors who travel to Aroostook County for contracted work. She said there are dozens of people she’s met who used to fly through Presque Isle, but now fly to Bangor and take a bus or rent a car for the rest of the trip north.

“That’s my concern, because that’s an economic effect on this area,” Lucas said. “I think an air service is needed here. We have a lot of big businesses. We’re sold out [at the hotel] Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and it’s a lot of business people.”

Lucas said she recently broke her thumb and saw a two-day delay in her appointment with a doctor who travels to the area. His United flight was delayed for two days and he ended up driving to Presque Isle from Newark, she said.

“Pen Air wasn’t the best. But the timing of the flights were much better and people with health issues used to be able to go to Boston and back in a day.”

Lucas said she and other leaders of the air travelers group see Boston as “ideal” for air service from Presque Isle, but they also want to help whatever air service is running operate well.

They’ve met with Wardwell and other city leaders and hope to bring more robust public participation to the next bid selection process, Lucas said. The Essential Air Service contracts run for two years and the next round of bids will come in at the end of this year for service starting July 2020.

“I’m just worried that we will completely lose the service. The airport is really well looked after,” Lucas said, praising Wardwell and the airport crew for keeping the runway open in challenging winter conditions.

The delays and cancellations with United are out of the airport’s control, she said. Oftentimes delays pile up in Newark and disproportionately affect small regional routes like the Newark to Presque Isle route.

Wardwell, meanwhile, said that United’s service has been working well. The cancellation rate is equal to or better than PenAir’s was, and the direct flight to the large hub of Newark means people have more options for destinations, he said.

“The statistics show we are gaining more than we’re losing,” he said of the boarding trends.

“There are going to be some folks that United meets their needs and there are going to be others that it doesn’t.”

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