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June 5, 2024

After six years, Presque Isle is about to switch its only commercial airline

File photo / Courtesy, PQI Travelers at Presque Isle International Airport have long flown aboard United Airlines' 50-seat jets, like the one shown here. United will soon be replaced by JetBlue as the federally contracted air carrier at PQI.

Travelers at Presque Isle International Airport will soon fly aboard JetBlue Airways, which has beaten out incumbent United Airlines for a federally subsidized contract to serve the Aroostook County city.

United has provided the only commercial flights at Presque Isle since 2018, shuttling twice a day between PQI and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. The air service is underwritten by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Essential Air Service program, and contracts go up for bid every two years.

United, the world's third-largest airline by revenue, had won the business three times in a row.

On Tuesday, however, the DOT issued an order awarding JetBlue the next contract, which begins Sept. 1 and runs to Aug. 31, 2026. The New York-based carrier, whose $9.6 billion in revenue last year was less than one-fifth of United's haul, has never before provided Essential Air Service.

JetBlue will have less frequent flights, taking off and touching down in Presque Isle once a day. But the carrier but will use larger jets — with passenger capacities of 100 and 140, compared to the 50-seat planes flown by United.

And instead of connecting the Star City with Newark, JetBlue will fly to and from Boston's Logan International Airport.

The airline was the low bidder on the EAS contract, proposing a federal subsidy of $10.4 million in the first contract year and $11.2 million in the second. United sought a subsidy of $13.1 million each year. Two other bidders, American Airlines and Boutique Air, did not receive community support during the procurement process and were not considered serious contenders.

In a public comment period earlier this year, both United and JetBlue received support, while city officials expressed a preference for the latter.

The DOT has the final say in awarding EAS contracts, however. Criteria for decisions include pricing, reliability of the airline, network connectivity, interline agreements, community input and marketing.

The EAS subsidizes flights to more than 150 U.S. airports, mostly in small cities and remote areas where commercial service otherwise might not be possible.

Founded after the 1978 deregulation of the airline industry, the EAS has sometimes drawn criticism because of high per-passenger costs. But the program is politically popular in the local markets it serves.

Currently, JetBlue's only Maine destination is Portland International Jetport.

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