May 26, 2019

County looks into regional jet service

CARIBOU – When it comes to flying in clients and potential businesses, regional jet service would put northern Maine on par with Bangor.

That’s the message Scott Wardwell, Northern Maine Regional Airport director, gave Thursday to Northern Maine Development Commission’s executive board of directors during its regular monthly meeting in Caribou.

Right now, regional jet service is not an option in Aroostook County, but that could change with a new state proposal that has been in the works since February.

Wardwell told the board that state officials are proposing that Pinnacle Airlines Corp. begin serving the Presque Isle airport with two regional jet flights per day. The regional jets seat 50 people. Officials also are hoping to work out similar deals for airports in Augusta, Rockland and Bar Harbor.

In January, Pinnacle acquired Colgan Air Inc. for $20 million. Colgan serves the four regional airports and Portland.

The proposal would increase the number of flights out of Presque Isle to five. Right now, the local airport offers three turboprop flights per day to Boston. Turboprop aircraft seat 34 people.

In his presentation to the board, Wardwell said the local airport had about 16,000 boardings in 2005, compared to 250,000 boardings at Bangor International Airport. Between 5 and 10 percent of Bangor’s boarding numbers were passengers coming from the local airport’s market area. Wardwell said the “leakage to Bangor” seems to be about pricing, schedules and regional jet service availability.

“One would think if we could recapture our market, we could support regional jet service,” Wardwell said.

But he said it’s a circular problem: Northern Maine can’t get the service because of current numbers, but it needs the service so that people will use it and the numbers will grow accordingly.

Wardwell said that’s why, when Pinnacle bought out Colgan, state officials had a unique opportunity to improve air service.

“Whenever there’s changes, there can always be upsides or downsides, and you always have to be careful to make sure you engage the new ownership, see where things are going, and hopefully put your best foot forward,” he said.

Gov. John Baldacci has invited Pinnacle Airlines officials to Maine to discuss their future plans for the state. Officials are hoping the invitation will result in regional jet service for the four regional airports.

For Presque Isle, that would mean two regional jet flights per day, with nonstop service from Presque Isle to Detroit, Mich.

Wardwell said some may ask, “Why would I want to fly to Detroit?” but he pointed out that the city is a “true hub” for Northwest Airlines. Pinnacle operates Northwest Airlink.

Local business leaders are encouraging the move because it will help bring clients to the area. Officials believe the service would afford more efficient travel, potentially improve health care because it would be easier for specialists to get to northern Maine, support innovative jobs, and encourage tourism and economic development.

The bottom line, Wardwell said, is that if northern Maine wants to be a true regional service center, it really needs a regional jet service.

“We need to be able to provide good air service so Aroostook County can be considered a regional service center,” Wardwell said. “How we feel we get there is through Pinnacle Regional Jet Service.”

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