United is the airport’s best option

Charlie Namur, Special to The County
2 weeks ago

As a proud member of the Presque Isle community, a retired regional airline pilot and the chair of the Airport Advisory Committee for Presque Isle International Airport, I have a vested interest in the future of our Essential Air Service (EAS), as should all of my fellow residents. 

As we look toward the future of air service for this community, my colleagues on the Airport Advisory Committee and I reviewed multiple proposals. After several hours of deliberation, we voted strongly in favor of United’s bid with a vote of 7-1. However, I’m extremely disappointed that the city council decided to override our recommendation and vote in favor of JetBlue, recommending that to the Department of Transportation. This was based on unsubstantial discussion and countless factual inaccuracies. 

The fact is, JetBlue will not provide the necessary air connections that this community uses today. United’s proposal that we endorsed meets the minimum service requirements of the Essential Air Service program. JetBlue’s proposal did not. As the city’s third-party airport consultant shared with both the advisory committee and the city council, JetBlue’s Boston hub has 128 flights to 75 cities while United’s Newark hub offers 386 flights to 160 cities — three times as many flights to twice as many cities. 

JetBlue’s proposed once-daily service will also make connecting more difficult. Houston and Dallas, Texas, were the 9th and 10th top destinations for PQI travelers in 2023. JetBlue would not offer a round-trip connection to either city when their service is proposed to begin. Single daily flights on JetBlue and a smaller hub in Boston make connections much more difficult under the JetBlue proposal than United’s. 

In fact, many cities where the community currently flies cannot be reached on JetBlue; 192 of the more than 250 destinations where United flew Presque Isle community members to in 2023 are not served at all by JetBlue (places like Anchorage, Alaska and Columbus, Ohio). 

The city council has said that the opportunity for growth is the reason for their selection of JetBlue. So are they likely to grow? JetBlue is a company in turmoil. They lost $310 million in 2023 and $362 million in 2022. They have just replaced their CEO and president. Their business dealings were challenged twice by the Department of Justice and their conduct was determined to be harmful to consumers. The Wall Street Journal rated them as the worst U.S. airline in 2023. That doesn’t sound like a company that can make a long-term commitment to the community. 

The growth in Presque Isle’s air traffic is exciting. The community’s marketing efforts have contributed to this growth, but the most important contributor is the subsidy provided by the Department of Transportation Essential Air Service program. The average round-trip purchased on United is subsidized more than $600 by the DOT. Most of PQI’s traffic would not exist if tickets cost $600 more than they did today. United uses the entirety of this subsidy to provide more expensive, twice-daily flights on weekdays, and this is reflected in their proposal that shows the service will continue to break even. 

JetBlue has proposed that it earn a 44 percent profit margin on the route — $1.8 million. That is a huge figure for a company that is losing money in an industry with a 4 percent margin in 2023. Those dollars could have gone to enhanced service, but JetBlue requested, and the city council granted, a waiver from the EAS programs requirements for twice-daily service. The community will lose its ability to fly out for vacation after the workday so that JetBlue can stem its losses. 

United’s service still has room for growth. In fact, their flights were only 64 percent full in 2023 and the popular morning departure was only 80 percent full. United has committed to increasing service as demand increases, but first and foremost, they remain focused on offering our community a consistent, reliable connection to where we need to go during both high- and low-demand periods. United’s on-time performance dramatically increased in 2023, reaching 90.2 percent on-time performance at Newark in Q4. 

If you would like to see United’s service continue, please let your city council and the Department of Transportation know. It is critical for your voice be heard to ensure air travel to and from this great community continues to serve its citizens’ needs.

Charlie Namur is chair of Presque Isle’s Airport Advisory Committee.