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June 1, 2018

Pilot shortage forces PenAir to abruptly end service to Presque Isle, Bar Harbor

Courtesy / PenAir
Courtesy / PenAir
Effective today, PenAir suspended its flights to and from Presque Isle and Bar Harbor and Plattsburgh, N.Y., saying “it will be suspending its East Coast operations due to loss of mechanics and pilots, who have accepted positions at other airlines after the U.S. DOT awarded all of the essential air service routes to other carriers.”

PenAir has suspended, effective today, its flights to and from Bar Harbor and Presque Isle.

The suspension, which was announced Thursday in a "travel advisory" on the airline's website, comes a month earlier than its scheduled departure as a carrier for Presque Isle as a result of the U.S. Department of Transportation awarding the essential air service contract United Airlines for the Northern Maine Regional Airport starting in July.

PenAir also suspended its flights to and from Plattsburgh, N.Y., effective today, saying "it will be suspending its East Coast operations due to loss of mechanics and pilots, who have accepted positions at other airlines after the U.S. DOT awarded all of the essential air service routes to other carriers."

PenAir, one of the largest regional airlines in Alaska and the Northeast, started operating between the markets of Boston and Presque Isle, Bar Harbor and Plattsburgh, N.Y., in June of 2012 under the Essential Air Service Program with the U.S. DOT. But in the most recent bidding process for the continuation of service at those communities, the U.S. DOT announced on March 20 it was awarding United Airlines a federally subsidized contract to serve Northern Maine Regional Airport in Presque Isle with flights to Newark, N.J.

In making that award, the U.S. DOT stated that United's bid to serve the Presque Isle airport at a $4.7 million annual subsidy was the lowest of six bids and estimated the airline would serve more than 31,000 annual round-trip passengers. By comparison, PenAir sought a $6 million annual subsidy and estimated it would have served 28,710 round-trip passengers.

Shortly after, PenAir announced it would be pulling its service out of the Trenton-based Bar Harbor Airport on June 30, stating that it couldn't afford to continue serving Downeast Maine without the Presque Isle contract.

"We have remained committed to these communities, says CEO Danny Seybert. "Our intentions have been to remain until replacement carriers began service. To accomplish this, we agreed to pay retention incentives to mechanics and pilots to remain with the company. However, due to the continued loss of mechanics and pilots as a result of the DOT's decision to award the Essential Air Service routes to other carriers, many mechanics and pilots have accepted employment elsewhere and after May 31, we will not have the required resources to continue operations."

PenAir said in its travel advisory that customers currently holding reservations/tickets on PenAir after May 31, can call 1-800-448-4226 for a refund. "For tickets purchased on other carriers or through any of the online travel agencies, passengers will need to contact them directly," the airline stated.

What comes next?

Fiddlehead Focus reported that at least one PenAir customer vacationing in Aroostook County cut short his family visit in order to return to Boston on the last flight out of Presque Isle on May 31.

"I usually visit once or twice a year, but it stinks to have to leave early," Bud Taylor of Boston told the Aroostook newspaper.

Scott Wardwell, director of the Northern Maine Regional Airport, told the newspaper that as of Thursday he hadn't heard from United Airlines if it could begin flights out of Presque Isle to Newark in June, rather the scheduled start date in July. He expressed disappointment that PenAir did not give more of an advance notice.

"We know that a number of businesses and individuals depend on the air service here for transportation and not having flights for one month will certainly affect us in terms of revenue," Wardwell told the Fiddlehead Focus. "But thankfully we do not have to wait longer than July 1."

Bradley C. Madeira, airport manager at the Hancock County Bar Harbor Airport, issued the following statement on the airport's website about PenAir's suspension of service on May 31:

"Today we looked into other options to provide additional temporary service in June to offset the loss of service with PenAir but, unfortunately, there is simply not enough time to coordinate that service with another air carrier and with the US DOT before it is needed. While this news is disappointing for us and more importantly for our customers who are affected by it, the public continues to be well served here by Cape Air, and will soon be served by Silver Airways as well with new service starting on July 1. We are looking forward to a successful summer and we hope that you will continue to fly in and out of our facility where you will find convenience, competitive fares and exceptional customer service."

Silver Airways to serve Bar Harbor

Silver Airways, which is headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and averages 125 daily flights to 18 destinations in Florida and the Bahamas, was selected earlier this spring to serve as the season carrier for the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport.

Madeira told the Ellsworth American at that time that the airline will start July 1, with service to and from Boston's Logan International Airport being provided in Saab SF-340 B twin engine turboprop aircraft.

"Silver plans to offer very competitive fares making flying into and out of the Bar Harbor Airport convenient and cost-effective," Madeira told the newspaper.

"This is not a new situation for airlines to be put in at times like this when the DOT chooses to change carriers in a community," said PenAir CEO Danny Seybert, adding that the airline did its best to meet its contractual agreement with the suspended airports, but without the necessary pilots and mechanics it could no longer do so. "Safety is above and beyond our No. 1 priority. We will remain steadfast as long as it is safe."

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