Airport Director Scott Wardwell speaks during a Presque Isle International Airport Advisory Board meeting in Presque Isle City Hall. Credit: David Marino Jr. / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Planes depart Presque Isle International Airport for the New York and Washington, D.C. metro areas multiple times a week, a vital link to the outside world in an isolated region. Yet, few are taking advantage amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flights at Presque Isle International Airport boarded 514 passengers in October and 333 in November, a respective 61 percent and 71 percent decrease from boardings for the same months in 2019, Airport Director Scott Wardwell said Tuesday.

The drop in air travel loomed heavy on the Presque Isle Airport Advisory Board meeting held at Presque Isle City Hall on Tuesday.

Wardwell said that the passenger decline corresponded with a significant decrease in commercial air travel across the United States, one that is getting worse as COVID-19 cases rise nationally.

October 2020 saw 62 percent fewer passengers at American airports than in October 2019, according to data gathered from 22 airlines by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Wardwell compared Presque Isle Airport’s traffic to that seen at nearby Bangor International Airport: in October 2020, BIA saw 25,056 passengers, a 58 percent decrease since October 2019.

“It seems as though we’re kind of following things fairly closely with the rest of the nation, Wardwell said. “Which is actually pretty remarkable given that we have the quarantine, and our Canadian customers are prevented from using us.”

With distribution of COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon in the United States, Wardwell said the airline industry is hoping that immunization can reverse declining numbers. Yet, he said business travel could see a permanent reduction after Americans became increasingly familiar with remote communication during the pandemic.

“These numbers are like 60, 70 percent off, so it’s definitely going to recover,” Wardwell said. “To what extent, nobody really knows, because there’s a lot of people who are used to doing Zoom meetings now.”

The decline could have been worse if the U.S. Department of Transportation had not chosen United Airlines to provide service at Presque Isle International in May, according to airport advisory board member Bob Clark,

“If we didn’t have United, there wouldn’t be any numbers,” Clark said.

The choice of United for Presque Isle’s air service was controversial, with many Aroostook residents who wanted direct flights to Boston supporting Silver Airways’ bid.

Presque Isle International has flown to both Newark Liberty International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport since October. Wardwell said the airport would have six departures and six arrivals per week during December. January was scheduled to have 12 departures and arrivals, but Wardwell said that could change.

Maine’s quarantine rules can be a barrier to some for traveling: many visitors do not have the time to quarantine for 14 days and might not be aware that they can move freely throughout the state after receiving a negative COVID-19 test. Wardwell said the airport was publicizing the availability of rapid COVID-19 tests across Maine on its website.

Travel outside of Maine is more complicated: for example, New Jersey asks that travelers not come to the state for non-essential business. While Virginia does not have any travel restrictions, Washington, D.C. has several.

Presque Isle City Manager Martin Puckett, who attended Tuesday’s meeting along with economic director Galen Weibley, said he was just hoping for a better tomorrow for the airport.

“I look forward to when these numbers go back up,” Puckett said. “I think a lot of people do.”

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