PORTLAND, Maine — While it expands domestic flights during a COVID-19 pandemic travel rebound, Portland International Jetport officials say future growth lies overseas.
Last summer, the airport saw a surge in new passengers as the vaccine rollout and the scrapping of travel prohibitions encouraged more to take flights to and from Maine. Americans traveled over the recent Presidents Day weekend in the highest numbers since Thanksgiving. Portland followed them in seeing high traffic.
The Portland jetport has announced three new locations this summer: Portland-based Elite Airways will be flying to St. Augustine, Florida, in the Jacksonville metro area and bringing back flights to Vero Beach, Florida. Southwest will run the airport’s first flight to Nashville, Tennessee, beginning in June.
Those additions are in line with a number of new non-stop flights the jetport has added in recent years. Increased U.S. flights now mean the airport must take a look at bringing international flights back, assistant airport director Zach Sundquist said. It does not have any now and no major airline has offered them widely there since Air Canada left in 2013.
“Our real future opportunities lie in international,” Sundquist said.
The airport will never have as many as neighboring Boston, Sundquist conceded. But there is potential for non-stop flights to popular destinations such as Caribbean islands and Mexico once or twice a week in the winter and Europe two or three times a week during the summer, he said.
Adding international flights can be a long process. For example, it needs a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility to process travelers, Sundquist said. He said the airport may try to get such a facility funded as part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed last year. A $14 million project will renovate the airport’s primary runway from April to June.
Connecting international travel is already firmly on the mind of the airport: part of Sundquist’s role is making sure that the flights out of Portland can neatly connect to international business destinations like Tokyo. As it stands, fliers can get there from Portland a few different ways, including going through Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit or Newark, New Jersey, among other locations.
Portland is seeing many of the same trends seen by airports across the country. Flights have far exceeded those in the first year of the pandemic, but they have still not returned to pre-pandemic levels amid drops in business travel and resistance to flying among some.
The number of people flying in the U.S. this month had nearly doubled since February 2021, when most did not have access to vaccines, according to federal data from Feb. 1 to Feb. 21. It remains about 18 percent lower than corresponding dates from February 2019.
Portland Jetport saw some effects of the omicron surge, including people canceling flights as well as declines in bookings, Sundquist said. More people are buying tickets as cases drop here and nationwide, he said. For now, the waxing and waning pandemic has changed the way people travel. Most of all, people aren’t planning too far into a future that is uncertain to predict.
“The booking window has consolidated significantly,” Sundquist said. “People aren’t booking 180 days in advance; they’re booking two or three weeks out.”
The airport saw sizable numbers last summer, peaking in August with 245,000 deplanements. People feeling safer traveling after the vaccine rollout was a big part of that. So were other factors, including that the pandemic was less new and more understood, Sundquist said.
Maine had once required everyone who entered the state, including residents who left, to either quarantine for two weeks or test negative for the virus. It joined other states in axing those requirements in 2021 well into the vaccine rollout.