A sign points to Presque Isle International Airport. Credit: Staff Photographer/David Marino | BDN

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PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — An airline has backed out of consideration for Presque Isle International Airport because of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Silver Airways — one of three airlines that submitted bids to provide essential air service to Presque Isle — told the U.S. Department of Transportation the pandemic would have made the venture unprofitable.

With Silver dropping out, United Airlines and Southern Airways are the two remaining bids to provide service at the airport beginning on July 1. United currently holds the contract.

Because United’s current two-year contract ends on June 30, the DOT opened up bids for a new two-year contract. The three applicants were announced in December.

The decision on who should provide air service to Presque Isle quickly became contentious, with dozens of residents denouncing service by United and praising Silver in public comments.

But United had the support of officials across the city, including the Presque Isle City Council and Airport Advisory Board. And with Silver out of the running, it appears increasingly likely that United will continue service at the airport for the foreseeable future.

While city boards can make recommendations, the DOT ultimately decides who provides service at the airport.

Silver CEO Steve Rossum said he withdrew because he expected that the civil state of emergency ordered by Gov. Janet Mills — especially the two-week quarantine for visitors from out of state — would have made it infeasible to profit for several months.

Rapid decreases in ticket sales for airlines nationwide was also an important factor.

“We don’t have the luxury of resources to potentially lose money for a sustained period of time,” Rossum said.

He said he had unsuccessfully asked the DOT to redo the bidding processing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. His airline planned to ask for a larger subsidy to offset decreased revenue because of the virus if the process took place.

Silver was likely to receive the bid because its subsidy request was lower than United’s, Rossum said. He said he appreciated Silver’s support in The County and would be interested in establishing service at Presque Isle in the future.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

The DOT has not announced its choice for the bid, with a spokesperson saying in early May that the department was processing the bid “in the normal course of business.”

Airline sales have declined sharply since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, May 26, the TSA screened about 246,000 passengers across the United States, only 11 percent the number of passengers on the same weekday last year.

Silver Airways was one of several airlines that recently requested permission to halt flights at multiple airports because of low demand, including those in Key West and Tallahassee.

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