General aviation: A lifeline for rural Maine

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In 1998, an ice storm swept through Maine, quietly burying roads and towns. Some communities became completely inaccessible. Without general aviation, many towns and island communities would have been cut off from resources for an unknown period of time.

It was general aviation pilots who stepped up to provide a vital link to ensure transportation of emergency personnel, emergency equipment and individuals requiring emergency care.

Penobscot Island Air is an on-demand air taxi company, based on the mid-coast of Maine. PIA provides air service to six island communities in Penobscot Bay, as well as mainland communities from Frenchville in the north to Boston. For the farthest islands, the ferry to the mainland is 1.5 hours each way, but the flight is 10 minutes. Imagine needing to take an entire afternoon just to grocery shop. And in winter, the harbor can freeze the boats in their moorings, leaving flying as the only option.

General aviation steps in to ensure the islands have services that mainlanders take for granted. In 2016, PIA transported 10,200 passengers, flew 168 Medevacs, delivered 300,000 pounds of United States Postal Service mail, 66,000 UPS packages, 10,368 FedEx Express packages, and some 48,000 FedEx Ground packages, among other things. Building supplies, boat parts, dogs, chickens, wedding gowns, cats, medications and groceries are some examples of our cargo.

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Contractors, electricians and natural resource personnel utilize our service on a regular basis. Dentists and staff are flown to island clinics and teams of biologists are flown to tag fish at northern dams and count eagles’ nests. We once even transported a marooned seal to a local animal hospital.

We also support local emergency services. We fly the sheriff’s officers between the islands for regular patrols and in emergencies. There aren’t any medical practices out there, so we fly doctors for regular appointments. In a medical emergency, we act as an air ambulance, collecting patients and transporting them to the hospital. Without general aviation, the “golden hour” where a patient is most likely to be saved would be completely missed.

Many lives in Penobscot Bay would be much more difficult without general aviation. Throughout Maine, general aviation has a total economic impact of more than $103 million and supports more than 1,500 local jobs.

All those are the reasons why I am concerned about the proposals being pushed in the U.S. Congress by big commercial interests which want to privatize the air traffic control system. If approved, air traffic control would be removed from the FAA and turned over to a private entity that would have no Congressional oversight. That board would make decisions about the costs of the system, investments in small airport maintenance and determining whether or not small users, such as PIA, would have equal access.

Would a private board, controlled by commercial airlines, be concerned about ensuring communities like ours remain connected? Probably not.

Right now, we can ensure the concerns we have are heard by our elected representatives. Without Congressional oversight, we would be forced to take those issues to the same board causing issues.

The proposed system would be funded through user fees for every flight, meaning costs pushed through by big commercial airlines would end up impacting small operators, such as PIA. Increased costs would be damaging for many small businesses in Maine. And, if the privatized system increased the administrative burden on my pilots (as every foreign privatized system has), our pilots would spend more time doing paperwork than flying people where they need to go.

Smaller businesses and communities like ours would face irreparable damage if our public air transportation system could no longer provide these important services. We would no longer be able to serve communities of all sizes.

Remote and island communities, such as those of Penobscot Bay, depend on general aviation to ensure the same access to transportation and quality of life as all citizens. A privatized air traffic control would sever that essential connection.

Kevin Waters is the owner and chief pilot of Penobscot Island Air, based at the Knox County Airport, Owls Head.

Kevin Waters
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