At least twice a week, employees of and visitors to MMG Insurance Co. – a Presque Isle firm with locations in five states – can be found at the nearby Northern Maine Regional Airport.
They can take advantage of the airport’s general aviation facilities to house the company plane, as well as commercial flights to Boston on PenAir, as part of a busy schedule of travel and meetings among staff, business partners and vendors.
“As it relates to northeast, rural Maine, the airport is critical, both in terms of access to this area and being able to reach out,” says Matthew McHatten, chief operating officer at MMG. “It’s been a big component in keeping northern Maine connected to the rest of the United States and, on some occasions, the world. Given our expansion to other states, it’s important for a company headquartered here to be able to have commercial air service and general aviation. It allows us to be effective and connected.”
Northern Maine Regional is one of 35 public use airports in Maine that are eligible to receive federal, state and local funding – and throughout Maine upgrades are in the works.
The smaller airports are essential to connect rural areas to business centers elsewhere. The small airports provide a slew of general aviation services such as facilities for corporate travel, pilot training, agricultural spraying, recreational flying and just-in-time shipping. They serve as a gateway for visitors, law enforcement, environmental patrol, emergency medical evacuation, forest firefighting, aerial photography, traffic- and news-reporting, air shows and aviation clubs.
The small airports fill in the gaps for commercial passengers that might more regularly rely on larger airports in Portland, Bangor or Augusta.
Northern Maine Regional is unique because there’s no other regional airport for quite a distance: The nearest is Bangor International, a 2 1Ž2-hour drive. The airport is also different for being located in an industrial park, whose businesses rely on it not only for business travel but to ship materials and products.
“Just because we’re located this far north, it doesn’t mean we operate in a bubble,” says Martin Puckett, Presque Isle’s city manager. “The airport allows us to be competitive. We’re seeing businesses in the industrial park expanding because of their proximity to the airport. A lot of businesses shipping throughout the Northeast have told me it doesn’t make sense to be in northern Maine. What makes sense is to be near the airport.”
Regional roles growing
Maine’s most highly used airports tend to be those that are near higher concentrations of population and areas characterized by business and commercial development. But they are just as important in Maine’s remote areas, many serving businesses that fly personnel, equipment and products. Services and facilities — such as fuel, maintenance and repair, flight training, medical evacuation, search and rescue, rental and charter, long runways and precise approach capabilities — are keys to attracting locally based and transient aviation demand. Sometimes, employers consider the existence and efficiency of air transportation facilities when expanding or developing.
At the Robert LaFleur Airport in Waterville, airport manager Randy Marshall Jr. hopes that about $6 million in recent investment will stimulate an increase in traffic.
“When I took over operations as manager in 2011, I didn’t feel comfortable or ready to market the airport until we addressed certain problems,” he says. “The runways were in poor condition. Our services weren’t capable of accommodating many aircraft, especially during the winter. We weren’t able to drain lavatories” or offer de-icing. “So people would go to Bangor or Portland.”
Infrastructure improvements were made, largely funded by Federal Aviation Administration grants, and the airport and the city of Waterville paid another approximately $300,000 for equipment such as de-icers, ground power apparatus, aircraft tugs, mowers and a fuel truck.
“Previously, the condition of the airfield and lack of services, coupled with the lack of businesses available to service aircraft and pilots, basically crippled the airport in terms of being capable of fulfilling its role in the community as an economic engine for central Maine. Our primary goal is to position ourselves to attract businesses to Waterville and central Maine.”
That leaves LaFleur and its adjacent business park, leveraged by their status as a free-trade zone, poised to enhance services to existing customers, attract new business, and eventually re-establish commercial passenger service, last offered in the 1970s, Marshall says.
“We have room for development,” he says. “We want to see corporations come in, set up shop and know they’ll be able to get the services they need. The projects we’re doing to secure business and traffic coincide with that long-term goal to secure commercial traffic. We won’t be landing 747s, but it would be a good, regional hub. One of the things the airport needs in order to achieve that is private investment. I’m hoping people will see that the city, state and federal government have been willing to invest, and that will set the precedent for private investment in the facility and therefore in the community.”
Maine’s 35 airports that are part of the FAA’s National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems are eligible to receive FAA Airport Improvement Program grants — money that comes from taxes on airline tickets, aviation fuel, aircraft registrations, and other aviation-related fees — that help airports with infrastructure needs, which in turn directly benefits local economies by providing work to local contractors. The FAA pays 90 percent of the cost of a project and the rest is split between the Maine Department of Transportation and the airport’s operations budget. Thanks to FAA funding, the condition of Maine’s airports is on par with those in other states, says Rollins.
Knox County Regional Airport, in Owls Head, has received about $7 million from the FAA, combined with 5 percent matches from the state and county, over the past five years, for improvements such as terminal construction; pavement, runway and road projects; and obstruction and wildlife mitigation. Further runway and apron improvements are projected into 2018.
Home to the small commercial carrier CapeAir, which provides service to and from Boston, Knox County also provides facilities for charter/air taxi operations such as island services that include mail, UPS, FedEx, supplies, passengers and medical evacuation; a flying club, transportation museum and transient aircraft. In the summer, tourism as much as triples passenger enplanements, and the number of part-time employees quadruples. It hosts several thousand business jet operations and scores of general aviation recreational and corporate flights each year; passenger traffic and other operations are projected to increase by 3 percent to 3.6 percent in the next 20 years.
“Most of our projects are designed to maintain what we have,” says Jeff Northgraves, manager of the Knox County Regional Airport. At some point, he hopes to attract a private investment to build hangars, which don’t receive FAA funds. “That would attract more aircraft to the airport,” he says.
Knox County Regional, like the Hancock County/Bar Harbor Airport near Acadia National Park, sees seasonal shifts in traffic. In high summer, CapeAir doubles its flights to 12 per day, accommodating mostly tourists, but also summer residents and family members returning home for visits. The general aviation facility will see “the John Travoltas,” as Northgraves says, bringing in their own aircraft while visiting their island “cottages.” Another important user is Penobscot Island Air, providing essential services, include medevac and mail, to the islands of Penobscot Bay.
“A lot of businesses locate here because the airport is here,” says Northgraves. “It gives them a lifeline to the rest of the world.” Many people don’t understand the importance of small airports, Northgraves says.
“I was talking with one individual who was not happy with all the ‘rich’ people coming through the airport,” he recalls. “He said, ‘I get nothing out of the airport.’ I asked him what he does. He said he was a driver for UPS. I said, ‘UPS wouldn’t have a distribution center here if there weren’t an airport.’ So almost everyone benefits, but they don’t realize it.”
Back at Northern Maine Regional, manager Scott Wardwell agrees.
“People don’t realize all the different parts of their day that the airport plays a role in,” Wardwell says. “Probably the northern third of the state, if they get a FedEx package, it comes through Presque Isle. If you go to a local florist and buy flowers, those flowers came in through the airport. Because of our relatively long distance from Bangor, and certainly Portland, traffic tends to be less seasonal and certainly has a substantial business component.”
The Defense Finance and Accounting Service Limestone, which has 600 employees in northern Maine, brings in customers and sends management to meetings in Washington, D.C.
“You have companies sending sales staff out through here,” Wardwell says. “When you need to bring in a vendor to work on equipment or develop a product, a lot of times those folks come through Presque Isle. McCain Foods, the hospital — we play a pretty big role in their recruitment efforts.”