Carrier PenAir links Logan to remote locales
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — This remote city in northernmost Maine is connected to Boston by three commercial flights a day, courtesy of an airline started in 1955 by an Alaskan fur trapper who wanted to cover more ground than his sled dog team could handle.
That fur trapper’s company, which became Anchorage-based PenAir, is building a mini-hub at Logan International Airport to serve the Northeast. The newest spoke, launching Thursday, will send nonstop flights to Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip, N.Y., which serves a market of 2 million people.
How this small company came to establish operations at Logan is a reflection of today’s airline industry, in which major airlines are pulling out of smaller markets and independent carriers are stepping in to fill the void — even from 4,500 miles away.
Nationwide, smaller airports lost more than 20 percent of domestic departures between 2007 and last year, compared with just 9 percent at the largest airports, according to a recent report by the MIT International Center for Air Transportation. The Islip airport had a 46 percent drop in departures during that time, while Providence lost 38 percent of its departing flights and Bangor 31 percent.
“You’re seeing communities all across the United States that are being abandoned,” said Danny Seybert, chief executive of PenAir and son of flying fur trapper Orin Seybert.
Half a century ago, PenAir got its start with a two-seat plane. The elder Seybert had the only aircraft on a 400-mile stretch of the Alaskan Peninsula, and when he started flying sick people to the hospital, a business was born. Over the next few decades, PenAir kept growing, ferrying cannery workers, fishermen, and hunters around the state in 34-seat Saab turboprop planes.
In 2011, Danny Seybert looked to make a major expansion. He had his eye on Memphis, but when the now-defunct Colgan Air, partnered with US Airways Express, pulled out of Boston last year, Seybert set his sights on the Northeast.
“My gut told me to go to Boston,” he said.
PenAir took over Colgan’s routes to Presque Isle, Plattsburgh, and Bar Harbor, which are subsidized by the Department of Transportation under the Essential Air Service program. The program was established to guarantee air service to small communities after the airline industry was deregulated in 1978
Bar Harbor, served by Cape Air year-round and by PenAir in the summer, is subsidized only in the winter. Like PenAir, Cape Air has been growing rapidly, doubling the number of cities it serves in the past decade.
PenAir, which carries 300,000 passengers a year and pulls in $90 million in annual revenue, began operating its 34-seat planes out of Logan last summer. About 70 of the airline’s 440 employees are now based on the East Coast.
Boston turned out to be an expensive place to do business, said chief operating officer Dave Hall, so the company looked to expand further to increase its revenues. After the Islip route starts this week — providing the first nonstop Boston-Long Island flight since 2008 —
PenAir is well-suited for flying to cities like Albany, Plattsburgh, and Presque Isle, the last of which sees an average of 109 inches of snow a year. Learning to navigate takeoffs and landings during Alaska’s long winters has prepared PenAir pilots well, said Presque Isle airport director Scott Wardwell. Perhaps too well.
“They shut down Boston for a snowflake,” said Anna Nelson, PenAir’s in-flight manager for the East Coast.
Angelique Geyer of Groton, Conn., was recently flying to Presque Isle with her 17-month-old daughter to visit her mother just over the Canadian border in New Brunswick. It was Geyer’s third flight on PenAir, and she was pleasantly surprised by the $89 one-way fare. But, she admitted, she initially found the whole thing a little odd.
“When I first heard about it,” Geyer said, “I thought, why is it an Alaskan airline?”
PenAir flights are no frills, with one flight attendant and engine noise so loud that the airline sometimes passes out earplugs. On a recent PenAir flight from Boston to Presque Isle, the departure was delayed by almost 90 minutes as the airline waited for a mechanic to drive from New Hampshire to fix a broken air conditioning switch. On the return flight to Boston, the airline made an unscheduled stop in Bar Harbor to pick up passengers because it was “short a plane,” according to a gate agent, putting the flight an hour behind schedule.
Such wrinkles reflect the more limited resources of smaller companies.
“If I’m a community, I want the [major] carrier,” said William Swelbar of the MIT International Center for Air Transportation. “I may be paying more, but I have greater access to the global transportation grid.”
Still, scheduled air service of any kind is vital for these communities. Tourists take the nonstop from Boston to Presque Isle — a community of about 10,000 where customers of unmanned farm stands put their money in unlocked metal boxes — to fish in the summer and snowmobile on the area’s thousands of groomed trails in winter. Mary Kay Moreau, a recruiter at the Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, uses the flight to attract job candidates.
“I throw that airport out there immediately,” said Moreau. “You’re removed a little bit from the world, but you can get to it really easily.”