PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — One of the most controversial issues in Presque Isle’s recent history has come to a conclusion: United Airlines will continue to provide essential air service to Presque Isle International Airport for the next two years.
The U.S. Department of Transportation chose United for a 23-month contract in an order on Friday, May 29. The DOT said United met all of its criteria for EAS service, citing the airline’s reliability, number of connections and support from Presque Isle’s elected officials.
With United’s current contract expiring on June 30, three airlines initially bid for the two-year contract: United, Southern Airways and Silver Airways. Only Silver and United were vying for the deal at the time of the DOT’s announcement, with Silver dropping out of the running in an email to the DOT on May 15.
Widespread discontent aimed at United in the Presque Isle area quickly made the air service issue a controversial one. In a public comment session in January, dozens denounced the airline, launching criticism over flight delays and repeatedly stating their dislike of flying to Newark. Many wanted flights to Boston, a possibility offered by Silver.
Scores pushed for the Presque Isle City Council and Airport Advisory Board to recommend that the DOT choose Silver. Both boards resisted public pressure, citing the large number of hubs United provided and increased ticket sales at Presque Isle Airport since United began flights there in 2018.
In a statement on Saturday, Southern Airways Chief Marketing Officer Keith Sisson said Southern was “disappointed,” that it was not chosen, especially because its annual subsidy request was about $1 million lower than United’s.
United’s new contract will run from July 1, 2020, to May 31, 2022. The DOT said that the airline would provide 12 round-trip flights a week from Presque Isle Isle International Airport to Newark Liberty International Airport on a 50-seat jet aircraft.
United will receive a $6.8 million annual subsidy from the DOT, a $2 million increase since its 2018-2020 contract.
The Department of Transportation said that United met all five criteria it uses to make an essential air service air carrier selection, including service reliability, number of inter-airline agreements and community support.
Many members of the public sent the DOT letters requesting flights to Boston. While the DOT said it reviewed all of the letters, it said they were legally required to give “substantial weight” to elected officials, almost all of whom supported United.
The department said that United could substitute “one or more” of its flights to Boston — as well as another “suitable large or medium hub airport” — for the same subsidy, pending approval from the DOT and community.
United has flown to and from Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, instead of Newark since May 4. United had requested the move because of the high number of COVID-19 cases in the New York metropolitan region, which includes Newark.
It is unknown if flights to Dulles could continue under the new contract.
Presque Isle International Airport Director Scott Wardwell did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.