Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head provides a critical link to tourists, residents, businesses owners, hospital patients and others between the mainland and islands in Penobscot Bay.

But in terms of passengers and flights, it is minuscule compared with the state’s largest commercial airports in Portland and Bangor. So it was quite a shock when Knox County received an $18 million Federal Aviation Administration bailout grant this month, enough to cover operations and security for the next 25 years.

“I haven’t slept since it was awarded,” said Airport Manager Jeremy Shaw. “I was quite surprised.”

Knox County will actually receive just over $2 million from the FAA in initial funding because of a cap that limits it to four years of operating expenses. The remainder of the $18 million can be used for allowable expenses, including construction, over the next four years, according to an FAA spokeswoman.

On paper, the $10 billion federal bailout for America’s airports unintentionally passed tens of millions of dollars to small regional airports.

The money is meant to support airports that have seen passengers and revenues crater since the coronavirus pandemic hit the country.

The Portland International Jetport will receive a $12 million grant, Bangor International Airport $4.1 million and Presque Isle International Airport about $1 million, according to the FAA.

About 32 other small Maine airports will receive far less, with most getting awards between $20,000 and $30,000. Airports in Augusta and Auburn will receive $69,000 each.

The calculation method used by the FAA created anomalies in how funding was doled out to airports.

Half the funding was based on the number of passenger boardings – those with more passengers received higher awards. Only four Maine airports hit the 10,000 passenger boarding threshold for increased funding based on 2018 data. Portland had more than 1 million passengers that year, Bangor had more than 336,000, Owls Head had about 17,000 and Presque Isle had a little over 10,000.

But the calculation model approved by the U.S. Senate also took into account debt and cash reserves. Twenty-five percent of the award was based on airport debt, and the other 25 percent was based on an airport’s ratio of debt to cash reserves.

Under that scenario, airports such as Knox County, which has no debt and some cash on hand, wound up receiving huge windfalls, at least on paper.

“This was done before any applications – this was their magic formula that came out of the Senate,” Shaw said. “What really factored into ramping up the funding was our debt and our cash reserves. That may be not what they intended, but that was the result of it.”

Dozens of airports, some with fewer than 10,000 passenger boardings a year, were approved for grants of $17 million to $18 million, according to FAA data.

“What Congress was trying to say is if you are a good custodian and fiscally responsible, we want you to benefit from the CARES Act, too,” said Portland International Jetport Director Paul Bradbury. “(But) when you divide by zero, all sorts of bad things happen.”

The $12 million awarded to the Portland jetport, which is owned by the city of Portland, is enough to pay for operations and debt service for about six months.

Passengers have disappeared from the airport over the past month. On Sunday, about 150 passengers boarded planes in Portland. On the same day last year, around 3,000 passengers boarded flights out of Portland, Bradbury said.

Having so few passengers during spring vacation week has wiped out parking revenue the jetport depends on. It expected at least $1.1 million from parking in April, one of the highest-earning months of the year, Bradbury said.

“Here, we are closer to $0,” he said. Now, on a good day only a few dozen cars are parked among the 3,500 jetport parking spaces.

“This is shocking – none of us could have ever anticipated anything like this,” Bradbury said.

Six months of funding will be a lifeline for the jetport, but it is uncertain what happens if the pandemic suppresses travel for longer. The airport has an unrestricted balance of about $26 million, enough to fund operations for a year, Bradbury said.

“Hope remains that this, too, shall pass, and six months may be a reasonable number,” he said.


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