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Updated: December 17, 2019

Bids due for Presque Isle air service

Courtesy / PQI Presque Isle International Airport has seen a recent spurt in traffic, as the federally subsidized contract with PQI's sole airline comes up for rebid.

Presque Isle International Airport, which has been served by United Airlines for the past two years, could soon see a different carrier touching down.

United, PQI's only commercial service, flies to the airline’s Newark, N.J., hub under a federally subsidized contract. But it’s up for bid and proposals are due Wednesday.

Will United try to renew its deal, or will another airline win the agreement to serve Aroostook County and its largest city, population 9,000? It’s too early to say.

The U.S. Department of Transportation in November issued a request-for-proposals seeking a carrier to make at least 12 weekly round trips at Presque Isle. The new contract, under the DOT’s Essential Air Service program, begins July 1, 2020, and runs for two years.

United received its current contract in 2018 for an annual subsidy of $4.8 million, and now flies twice a day between Presque Isle and Newark in 50-seat jets. In its bid the carrier beat out five competitors including the incumbent, PenAir. Once among the largest regional airlines in the Northeast and Alaska, PenAir had been shuttling between Presque Isle and Boston under the EAS program for six years.

But United’s bid over the life of the contract was $2.4 million cheaper than PenAir’s — and was projected to carry about 2,300 more passengers a year.

Not everyone was happy with the change in carriers, however.

In its 2018 order giving the contract to United, the DOT noted that it “received a substantial amount of correspondence from residents and users supporting PenAir’s service, many indicating the need for continued service to [Boston] for a variety of travel reasons.”

But the Presque Isle City Council and Airport Advisory Committee both backed the United proposal for Newark, saying that service would best connect residents to the national air transportation system.

Take-offs and descents

The new contract comes as Presque Isle sees a spurt in air traffic.

Formerly known as Northern Maine Regional Airport, PQI is owned by the city and served about 25,800 passengers in the past year. That's up from 21,600 in the previous four quarters, according to the DOT, although about the same level as 2016-2017. The most recent three months have been particularly busy, with 8,500 passengers and an average of 53 boardings a day.

Besides Presque Isle, the EAS contracts for flights at three other Maine locations: Augusta State Airport, Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport in Bar Harbor and Knox County Regional Airport in Rockland. The flights from all three go to Boston.

Overall, the EAS subsidizes flights to about 160 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.

In making the contract awards, the DOT considers community input, but under law gives preference to what their elected officials have to say.

After losing the Presque Isle contract, PenAir yanked its service from Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport in Trenton, which the carrier had also served under an EAS contract. PenAir said at the time that  it couldn’t afford to continue serving Downeast Maine without the Presque Isle contract, and that pilots and mechanics had quit in order to work the new United route.

PenAir is now operated by another regional carrier, Ravn Alaska. In Bar Harbor, Cape Air and Silver Airways now provide off-season and summer flights, respectively, under EAS contracts. They will also be up for rebid in 2020.

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