Cleared for take-off
by Kathryn Buxton
Built as a post-World War II air force base, now decommissioned, Bangor International Airport has faced major industry shifts and other challenges by building public-private partnerships and nurturing a growing regional demand for convenient travel options.
On a recent winter morning, Bangor International Airport (BIA) is bustling. A row of women and men line the enclosed walkway between the airport’s domestic and international terminals. They are greeting American soldiers returning from service in Iraq. The soldiers are on a layover and, quickly, the waiting areas, restaurants, shops and a serviceman’s welcome center are filled to overflowing.
BIA is, in a way, the ideal way station for troops serving overseas. It is the United States’ easternmost airport and home to the local Air National Guard. It also is a refueling stop for the military’s transcontinental and transatlantic flights.
Since 2003, more than 400,000 military personnel have passed through BIA. Almost every one of them has been met with a smile and word of appreciation by a group of local citizens known as the Maine Troop Greeters — many of them veterans themselves. They give the soldiers a homey dose of cheer the soldiers often remember long after their brief layover. That’s the kind of goodwill and neighborliness one rarely associates with post-September 11 air travel, even as passengers are carefully screened and security measures closely followed.
“The young men and women who pass through here during their deployment are an inspiration. The quality bodes well for the nation’s future,” said Maine Representative Dusty Fisher (Brewer) who has been involved with the group nearly since its inception.
“We’re the last point of departure and the first point of arrival,” said Airport Manager Rebecca Hupp who said the personnel passing through Bangor represent military passengers traveling on a mix of civilian air charters and military flights.
In recent years, as security concerns have increased, BIA has taken on a high profile role as a diversion destination for international flights on which there is a suspected security problem. A pilot with a disruptive passenger can radio ahead to Bangor, and the airport can bring in a security team within minutes — usually local police, customs and FBI personnel.
When the airliner lands, it taxis to a far corner of the airfield where officials can board and escort the problem passenger from the aircraft. This doesn’t happen often, but whenever it does, the airport and law enforcement’s efficient handling of the disturbance frequently brings positive coverage in the national and international press. Hupp is very matter-of fact when talking about Bangor’s high profile role in the nation’s security. “We have a good relationship with all of the agencies — the FBI and U.S. Customs — and of course, the Bangor Police Department,” said Hupp who said that since 2001, there have been more than a half dozen flight diversions. Additionally, the airport, with its nearly two-mile-long runway, is one of several alternative landing sites for NASA’s Space Shuttle that could be diverted due to weather or other concerns.
BIA is one of three international airports serving Maine; Portland and Presque Isle are home to the other two. The first flights out of the facility were in 1946 when it was Dow Air Force Base. The base, because of its strategic location and long runway, drew some of the military’s largest aircraft. At the height of the Vietnam War during the early and mid- 1960s, B52s regularly flew from the base. Dow was decommissioned in 1968, and the city of Bangor assumed control of it, converting it to commercial operations. The sprawling facility remains integral to the nation’s defense since it serves as home to the local Air National Guard. The Guard houses a fleet of Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers at the base, and other military craft, including McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extenders and Boeing C-17 Globemasters, often can be seen on its tarmac.
Bangor is what is known as an “enterprise fund” airport. That means it operates solely from the revenues it generates from a variety of aeronautical and other operations. As an enterprise fund airport, the ongoing relationship between the military and BIA has been extremely important, according to Hupp. She said the military and the airport frequently share costs. For example, in the case of snow removal and groundskeeping, the Air National Guard owns the equipment and BIA provides the labor to plow the runway and cut grass, among other maintenance activities. Hupp said the agreement certainly helps Bangor keep the airport’s bottom line healthy.
The airport brings in operating revenues from its aircraft maintenance operations, passenger services, concessions and its real estate holdings. Recently, L.L. Bean opened a call center in a BIA-owned building, and the airport has several other non-aeronautical tenants.
Courting regional travelers
The all-time high for BIA passenger travel (911,999 passengers) was in the early 1990s when the airport still had regular commercial overseas flights. When those flights stopped, BIA worked hard to build a niche serving the region’s domestic travelers. That has not been easy in the hardscrabble world of airline deregulation today. But Bangor has aggressively marketed its service to the region’s travelers, promoting convenience and timesavings.
Today, BIA serves nearly a half a million passengers every year, making it the second busiest airport in Maine (the number one Maine airport, Portland, logs approximately 1.4 million passengers annually). The airport’s healthy bottom line has made it possible for BIA to develop a niche for Bangor area and Penobscot County travelers. Five U.S. carriers serve the airport, and the region’s travelers have their pick of several key destinations — major U.S. cities and key airline hubs that include Boston, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlanta. In 2005, BIA made big news when Continental added daily flights to its New York area hub at Liberty International Airport in Newark.
Hupp would like to add a Florida city to the airport’s roster of flights. She said it will be important that the new service offer affordable flights. Unfortunately, BIA has nothing to do with setting ticket prices; those are set by the airlines based on volume, competition with other carriers and other market factors. As Hupp pointed out, airport fees are a minimal factor in determining ticket costs.
“Only 5 percent of an airline’s costs is in airport fees,” said Hupp. “We do what we can to keep costs down, but what we charge is not going to make a big impact on what the customer pays for a ticket.”
An important factor in BIA’s business plan is making strategic investments in its facilities. In 2003, the airport completed an $18 million reconstruction of its runway (The Lane Construction Corp. was the primary contractor). This past summer, the airport constructed a new access road on the east side of the airport. Sargent Corp. did the construction, while another MBTA member, Moulison North Corp. did the electrical work.
Hupp said the airport will be spending more than $1 million to reconstruct the cargo aircraft parking apron. There are also plans in the works to construct a second access road on the west side of the runway within the next two years, a project budgeted at $350,000. This would be used to develop new cargo transportation markets. Hupp is guardedly optimistic about the promise of new cargo business for the airport. She said shipping goods by air is expensive and the competition is fierce.
Developing expanded air cargo service from Bangor would be easier if there were a more convenient east-west connection over land. Hupp and MaineDOT’s Office of Passenger Transportation are exploring further development of the airport’s passenger service, as well. “We want to be the preferred service provider for our region,” said Hupp.
To achieve that goal, the airport will need to stay on top of market developments to make sure that BIA continues to have a competitive offering of flight service. “Our job is to make flying from Bangor easier, more convenient and as affordable as possible,” said Hupp.