A new study on passenger service at Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport is an inch-deep assessment that city leaders on both riverbanks should view with skepticism. Despite lofty market numbers, not much about passenger flights at A-L makes sense.

The problem is not potential for passengers. A-L could draw from a total “true market” of about a half-million people, as the study by the Sixel Consulting Group heralds. Yet the study also includes this significant caveat: “[this] does not necessarily indicate total demand for local air service at [A-L].”

“It is assumed,” the study also adds, “service at Auburn-Lewiston itself would capture only a small portion of the total number of potential passengers.”

This is the problem — what is the actual demand for service? Maine has six passenger airports -– in Portland, Bangor, Rockland, Augusta, Bar Harbor and Presque Isle; all but Portland and Bangor can only offer flights through a steep controversial federal subsidy called Essential Air Service.

EAS came around in the late 1970s, when carriers abandoned unprofitable rural routes. (A-L, through the 1970s, had passenger service through small carriers like Executive Airlines and Air New England.) Today, the program provides about $141 million to subsidize flights in 108 communities in the continental U.S.

The total subsidy for Maine’s service, as of November, was about $8.3 million between those four smaller, local airports, for carriers that provide only one passenger route: to and from Logan International Airport in Boston, aboard either nine or 34-seat aircraft.

Airports eligible for passenger subsidies must be beyond 70 driving miles from a large- or medium-sized passenger airport; A-L’s proximity to Portland might exempt it from the subsidy altogether.

President Barack Obama, in his proposed budget, has pledged an additional $55 million for rural air service. Yet there’s nothing to indicate this infusion of funds also translates into a loosening of eligibility requirements that would allow an airport like A-L to qualify.

A-L, then, looks to be on middle ground. The airport is neither large enough to have a Portland or Bangor-sized business, nor small or rural enough to compete with federally subsidized carriers at airports in four other areas of the state. How this would affect flight fares from A-L is an open question, as the airport would lack the business volume or subsidies of its competitors.

There’s little doubt a population base exists around L-A, and that this population does fly. But the presence of people alone doesn’t equate to need, or demand for passenger flights, particularly when competitive and governmental forces would put the Twin Cities’ airport at an instant competitive disadvantage.

Building A-L into another Jetport or BIA to support itself is not an option. Nor would be luring a tiny carrier offering Boston flights in return for a federal lifeline. Unfortunately, there’s sparse intermediate territory for an airport like A-L to exploit.

Yes, maybe A-L could have passenger service. But should it?

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