A pilot is seen through a plane window
A Silver Airways plane during its first arrival at the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport in 2018. The airline has since left the airport and Cape Air is the only regular service provider. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

The Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport may lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars because of its low passenger counts last year.

The small airport in Trenton saw the number of people who boarded planes there in 2021 fall to about 8,700, just below the 10,000-passenger threshold needed to qualify for $1 million in federal subsidies.

Instead, the airport will receive about $150,000 through the federal Airport Improvement Program, according to Leroy Muise, the airport manager.

It’s a struggle the airport has gone through over the years because its ridership numbers regularly hover right around the 10,000-passenger threshold. A few hundred passengers could drastically change the federal support year-to-year.

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“It makes it hard to budget capital improvements,” Muise said. “Some years you have a million, others you have $150,000.”

In 2019, the airport just met the criteria, with 10,088 paying customers passing through the single-terminal airport. In 2020, as with other transportation providers, numbers took a nosedive to about 2,600 passengers. But the rules were suspended and funding was based on the 2019 data, so the airport also received $1 million in 2021.

Official designations on the 2023 funding are expected to come out in July, Muise said, but it’s not the end of the world if the airport misses out on the $1 million funding every now and then. All ongoing improvement projects are currently funded. If the trend continues for several years, some future projects could end up being delayed.

“If we drop one year, it’s not going to sting too bad,” he said.

In Maine, the predicament seems to be singular to Hancock County. Other airports in the state are either firmly above 10,000 passengers or well below.

Cape Air is the only year-round airline currently operating at the Hancock County airport and provides daily flights between Trenton and Boston. In the past, there have been other seasonal providers. PenAir left the airport in 2018. Silver Airways took its place, but later departed in 2020. Both added several thousand more passengers to the airport’s count. Cape Air has since taken over the seasonal slack by adding extra flights in the summer.

Breaking 10,000 passengers now largely depends on the number of private charter flights at the airport in any given year, Muise said.

If the Knox County Regional Airport only had Cape Air, it might be in the same boat as Bar Harbor. But the airport in Owls Head also has Penobscot Island Air providing passage to the islands, giving it that extra boost to regularly have more than 10,000 passengers.

“That’s where we get the chunk of ours,” said Jeremy Shaw, the Knox County airport manager. “Most years they almost double what Cape Air does.”

The smaller amount of funds for Hancock County isn’t expected to derail any ongoing projects at the airport. Muise said that the facility is in good shape. He didn’t have current counts but said it was looking like they could break 10,000 passengers by the end of the year.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll be okay in ’22,” he said. “There’s a lot of people around.”