Maine-based charter airline Elite Airways will start offering first-ever direct, year-round service to Florida from Portland.

Starting Dec. 18, the airline will offer service between the Portland International Jetport and the Melbourne International Airport in Florida on Mondays and Fridays for $149 each way.

“We are so proud to bring this service to Maine,” said John Pearsall, the company’s president, at a news conference at the jetport Tuesday.

Since its founding in 2012, the airline has had plans to expand into scheduled flight dates as part of a strategy to connect smaller New England cities with Florida destinations to capitalize on snowbird travelers. The airline is targeting Florida’s Space Coast – the area around Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center – as its primary destination.

The Melbourne airport is roughly an hour’s drive from Orlando, 35 minutes from the Kennedy Space Center, 20 minutes from Cocoa Beach, and 20 minutes from Port Canaveral, a large cruise ship port.

Jetport Director Paul Bradbury characterized the route as underserved and said Elite’s new service is well-timed for holiday and winter-break travelers.

According to the jetport’s 2014 annual report, the market for Florida travelers is strong. Orlando has historically been the No. 3 destination, behind top-ranked New York City and Washington, D.C. The coastal cities of Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach have been the fifth-most common destination area for Portland flights, followed by Tampa.

“As a Maine-based business, we appreciate that winters can be long and cold – so this new leisure traveler route makes it convenient and affordable for a family vacation,” said Pearsall in a release. “We believe there is a solid demand for nonstop service between Maine and Florida.”

Several airlines serve Orlando and Florida coastal airports from Portland, but require a stop or connecting flight.

Allegiant Air, an ultra-low cost airline, offers direct flights between Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Orlando Sanford International Airport. Allegiant has a fleet of conventional-sized commercial aircraft, including Airbus, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas jets, many of which are typically packed with families heading to Disney World.

George Morrison, 83, of Naples, who has a winter home near Daytona Beach, said he’s excited about the new Elite service because he hopes that flights on one of its small jets will be more comfortable than flying in a crowded Allegiant jet. Elite Airways will use two jets for the new Florida route, a CRJ 700, which seats 70 passengers, and a CRJ 200, which seats 50. The jets have leather seats, two on each side of the center aisle.

“Even if it’s a little more money, I’d take that flight,” he said of Elite Airways. “I like the idea of a small plane.”

Elite has historically made most of its money providing charter flights to Division 1 college sports teams. Diversifying into leisure travelers at smaller airports is a way for the airline to capture new revenue. In a July 2014 interview, Pearsall said the company hoped to benefit from incentives offered by smaller regional airports, which are more likely than the large airport hubs to waive landing and terminal leasing fees, and to contribute toward marketing campaigns for smaller carriers.

Elite owns 10 regional jets and employs 120 people, including 40 in Maine.

The new flights to Florida are scheduled to leave Portland at 2 p.m. and arrive in Melbourne at 5 p.m. Northbound flights will depart Melbourne at 10 a.m. and arrive in Portland at 1 p.m.

The fares include a free checked bag and no change fees to rebook a later flight. Elite will also serve complimentary beverages and snacks. The airline markets the route as pet-friendly.

Earlier this month, Elite announced nonstop service between Newark, New Jersey, and the Vero Beach Regional Airport in Florida, less than an hour from Melbourne.


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