Thursday may have brought the largest single service announcement in the history of the Portland International Jetport, according to officials at the Maine airport.
United Airlines announced a major seasonal expansion, revealing it would offer direct flights from Portland to six cities — Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and the Ohio cities of Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.
According to a press release from United, the flights will begin on Memorial Day and, varying by city, are scheduled two, three or four times weekly.
“This is a massive announcement,” said Zachary Sundquist, assistant airport director at the Jetport, adding that the expansion is essentially like building “six new bridges to Maine.”
The United announcement comes less than a week after Delta Airlines unveiled a plan to fly daily between Boston and Bangor International Airport beginning in May, adding a once-weekly flight between Bangor and Atlanta, as well.
A Delta web page highlights Acadia National Parks as a draw for travelers.
All that news comes on the tail of other new route announcements in Portland within the past few months.
Frontier Airlines will operate a route between Tampa and Portland multiple times a week between mid-April and mid-May. American Airlines will run a new year-round route between Portland and Miami and is bringing back seasonal service between Portland and Dallas-Fort Worth beginning in late spring. And Delta Airlines will add a daily non-stop route between Portland and Minneapolis/St. Paul.
“I think what COVID did is it took the rule book and it tore out a whole bunch of pages,” Sundquist said of the airline changes and their sudden push into Maine.
Sundquist believes that surge in service is driven by tampered expectations of international travel related to the pandemic, an increase in travel confidence in safety given the ongoing vaccine rollout and a drop in business travel.
He added that there is a sense by the airlines that outdoor-focused destinations within the United States, like Maine, are in demand this coming year, and adding direct service to the state minimizes travelers having to navigate travel restrictions when connecting on flights or traveling to larger hubs to board planes.
“As we started to see earlier with the American announcement, there was a really positive outlook toward summer, that vaccines were starting to roll out, and I think there’s a real desire on the part of the airlines to try and minimize the number of stops that were necessary for the customer to get where they need to go domestically,” he said.
Sundquist added that all that air traffic will likely put the Jetport in a dramatically different place from where it was when passenger demand hit its lowest level in 2020, with a 97% drop year-over-year.
More recently, the Jetport has found itself in the 50% year-over-year drop range after spending “most of the past eight months in that negative 65-70%” zone, Sundquist said.
Asked by NECN and NBC10 Boston if there were specific states or areas in the U.S. that Maine health officials were watching as they consider what travel restrictions to impose on visitor in the coming weeks, the director of Maine’s CDC, Dr. Nirav Shah, said “there are no specific states,” and “variants are a concern that has not yet led to an explosion” warranting formal increased caution in regard to travel.
Sundquist said he is hopeful at least some of the seasonal routes that airlines experiment with in Portland in 2021 become permanent routes at some point in the future.
“That’s always the goal,” he explained. “If there’s a strong enough business case there, [the airlines] want to duplicate it in future.”